Finding Killdeer Nests: Two Methods

As part of my on-going effort to become more familiar with the behavior of the birds of Eliza Howell Park, I pay special attention to their breeding habits. Last week I commented on my so-far unsuccessful attempts to locate a Wood Duck nesting cavity. Since then, Killdeer, another of the March arrivals, has made its annual appearance.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I have had more success in locating Killdeer nests, though this is also a big challenge. Killdeer nest on the open ground, in a small depression with no nest structure. The nesting birds are so well camouflaged that they can only be seen when they move. And, like Wood Ducks, the young leave the nest immediately after hatching, so there is no feeding activity to help one locate the nest.

Killdeer nest very early in the year, before the ground plants grow. In each of the areas shown in this picture, I was able to locate a Killdeer nest, in three different years.

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I found this nest (next picture) by using the nest-hunting method I usually employ for Killdeer:

  1. paying careful attention to the area of the field where a pair of Killdeer is “hanging out” in late March/early April;
  2. watching them, from a distance, to try to find the location where one of the pair settles down on the ground, a possible nest;
  3. trying to fix that location in my mind (this is difficult because an open field provides very few markers to go by);
  4. going to the location when the birds are absent to try to get a close-up look (even when I know there probably is a nest there, it remains difficult to actually spot it).

This strategy takes a lot of time and patience, but it often works.

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Nest-finding method # 2 is not really a method at all. I refer to it as serendipity, making the discovery more or less by accident, by being in the right place at the right time.

Two years ago I was walking across the field in April with a park visitor, heading toward an area where I had been observing Killdeer. All of a sudden, a Killdeer few out from three feet in front of us. Looking down, I saw that we had almost stepped on a nest, at least 50 yards from the area I thought might be their nesting site.

After a quick picture, we left the area so that incubation could resume.

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Killdeer nest regularly in Eliza Howell, but, as far as I can determine, only one or two pair a year. They nest early and usually in the area of the park that is mowed. In some years, I am concerned that the eggs might not hatch before mowing begins.

Killdeer probably have another brood later in the nesting season, but I have not yet located a nest after April.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The pair that arrived within the last few days has already been engaged in mating activity; they are likely to nest soon.

And I have started my watching, noting that they seem to be favoring an area that has the kind of gravelly ground that Killdeer often like for their nests. I will be back, multiple times.

And, if my patient watching doesn’t confirm a nest, maybe I will discover one by method # 2?

Wood Duck Nest Quest

This year I saw the first Wood Ducks of the year in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit on March 7. A few Wood Ducks always arrive in March and spend the breeding season in the park. But in all these years I have not yet found one of their nests.

Maybe this year!

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     Note: All the bird photos here are from Margaret Weber.

In the last ten years I have kept a record of the active bird nests that I find in EHP. I have located the nests of 38 different species, several nests of many of them. But no Wood Duck nests, even though I annually see at least one female with young in the summer, evidence that they are breeding here.

Wood Ducks get their name from the fact that they nest in trees, in cavities. Their nests  are usually in woodlands near ponds and rivers. Eliza Howell is a good location for them, with the river running through a woodland that has many old trees with natural cavities.

The male is striking.

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And the female, more subtle, is likewise very attractive.

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I usually find bird nests by watching birds (1) building nests, (2) on or entering nests, or (3) taking food to young in nests.

Wood Ducks (1) do not build a nest; they find a hole in a tree that is suitable and line it with nothing but some the female’s own down. They (2) enter the nest very seldom. The female lays one egg a day until the large clutch (perhaps 8 – 10 eggs) is complete and then begins to incubate them, leaving the nest very little. They (3) do not feed the young in the nest. All the eggs hatch at about the same time and, when the ducklings are one day old, their mothers calls them and they climb out of the cavity and drop to the ground (sometime dozens of feet) and follow the mother to water.

So it is understandable that their nest is difficult to locate. I think my best chance may be when they are selecting the nest site, when the male accompanies the female as they check out possibilities. Two are easier to see than one.

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While Wood Ducks are regulars in the breeding season, they are not present in great numbers. My best estimate is that, in any given year, there are only 2 – 3 breeding pairs in the park. After eggs are laid, the male is not actively involved in caring for the young, as is typical of duck species. The female does not feed the young; she watches over them as they eat on their own.

The male spends the summer on his own or with other males.

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Because they are cavity-nesting birds, Wood Ducks will sometimes use bird boxes. In late 2018, thanks to the efforts of several friends of Eliza Howell, three Wood Duck boxes were installed in the park. Ducks did not use any of them in the first year, 2019, but they are now providing additional cavities near the river. 

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The Wood Ducks have returned and I renew my quest to locate a nest.

Maybe this will be the year.

I say this every year, but 2020 just might really be the year!

 

40 in 2020: A Bird Recognition Program

Eliza Howell Park is one of the locations included in a special bird learning series this year sponsored by Detroit Audubon. This program is designed to assist individuals who want to improve their ability to recognize and identify birds by sight.

The project goal is for all who participate to be able to recognize on their own 40 or more bird species by the end of the three field trips.

The field trips are designed to provide extended looks at many of the birds that breed in the Detroit area. One is the Wood Duck. Once seen, the male is usually remembered, but the female is not so distinctive.

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        I thank Margaret Weber, who provided all the photos included here.

The field trips are on Saturday mornings, from 8:30 – 11:00, at three different locations.

Saturday, April 25, Kensington Metropark

Saturday, May 30, Eliza Howell Park (in Detroit)

Saturday, June 20, Rouge Park (in Detroit)

Kensington is a good location for becoming more familiar with “sexual dimorphism” in birds (difference in appearance between females and males), such as in Wood Ducks. The Red-winged Blackbird is another species in which the female looks very different from the male.

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In many bird species, the differences in appearance between the sexes are slight or not visible.

Among the birds on the “40 in 2020” list, Barn Swallow is one example of minimal female-male difference in appearance. The field trip leaders (Grace Vatai and I) will assist individuals in recognizing how Barn Swallows differ from two other swallow species that we will likely encounter – and how to identify them in flight.

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One can, of course, enjoy birds without being able to name the species. But, at least in my experience, knowing “who is who” is an important step in learning about their behavior. In addition to bird identification, this project will include some discussion of breeding habitat and behavior.

Killdeer nest on the open ground and Belted Kingfishers nest in the ground, in a tunnel in a (river) bank.

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Participants need to register in advance and are expected to take part in all three Saturday trips. Individual field trips are not open to anyone who is not registered for all three.

The group is limited to 20 individuals. One does not need to be a member of Detroit Audubon to participate, but priority will be given to members if the group limit is reached. There is no program fee, but Kensington Metropark has an entrance fee.

Registration is managed by Detroit Audubon. The link:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/40-in-2020-beginning-birding-series-tickets-97580547043

The project is designed to focus on different birds in each of the three field trips. We are working with a list of some 60 different species selected from among those that breed in the Detroit area. Some are quite common; others less common. Some are colorful; some are not. The list will be made available to those who register.

The Green Heron is one of the “target” birds.

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Red-tailed Hawks: “Stay Away”

The loud screeching screams of the two Red-tailed Hawks sent a clear message: I was in their nesting territory of Eliza Howell Park and I was not welcome.

The Red-tailed Hawk, a large raptor (about 20 inches long with a 45 – 50 inch wingspan), regularly nests in the park.

         Note: All the photos here were taken by Margaret Weber.

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By the middle of February, the resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks has usually claimed its nesting territory and is protecting it. For most of their long breeding season, I avoid going close to their nest, but early in the year I usually walk the probable area once in order to verify that they are again intending to nest here and to observe their territory-protecting behavior.

I cannot decide if the call of this hawk is best described as a screech or a scream, so I think of it as a “screeching scream.” It has been used for decades in movies and on TV to depict the scary call of any large raptor, including a Bald Eagle. Listening to the call of the Red-tailed Hawk and the call of the Bald Eagle (via a Google search) will explain the movie maker’s preference for the hawk call to depict a scary atmosphere when showing a picture of an eagle.

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I was impressed again this year at how scary the loud screeching screams of the Red-tailed Hawk really are, especially when I know that the two birds circling overhead are screaming directly at me. As soon as I confirmed that the nest they used last year is still intact and that they are patrolling that specific area, I left, at an increased walking speed.

Their nest is made up of piled sticks with an inner cup of bark and vegetation. They often use the same nest more than once. The picture here is of one that they used in Eliza Howell a few years ago, before it fell.

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Though it can often be identified by the reddish tail when flying (see picture above), the Red Tail is usually best recognized by the dark belly band clearly visible when it perches.

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Red-tailed hawks primarily eat rodents and other small mammals, occasionally including reptiles and birds. They have two hunting patterns, soaring or perching. They are the hawks most commonly seen perched on trees and poles along highways, apparently a good place to wait for a rodent to show.

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If I have a bird-watching specialty, it is locating bird nests and showing them on field trips.

Red-tailed Hawks, probably the same pair, have nested for years in Eliza Howell Park. Yet I have very seldom guided others to see their nest. When they scream at me as loudly as they did last week, I have a definite sense that they are much more disturbed by nest watchers than most other species. I try to respect that.

And I don’t like being screamed at.

 

The River This Winter: I Miss the Ice

This has been, so far, a warmer than average winter in Detroit. Meteorologists reported that the average temperature for January 2020 was 32.4 degrees F,  which is above freezing, and 6.8 degrees above normal.

I am not surprised by these numbers. During my walks in Eliza Howell Park, I have been impressed by the fact that the Rouge River is not freezing over this winter.

The following three pictures were all taken on the same calendar date, January 26, in each of the last three years. The top is from 2020; the second from 2019; the third from 2018.

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It wasn’t just in late January that the river has been iceless this winter. This has been the typical condition. In my observations, the closest the river came to being frozen over was during the fourth week of December, when there was a very thin covering of ice. This picture is from December 23, 2019.

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One of the consequences of the mild winter is that a Belted Kingfisher has been present in the park in both January and February this year, something that had not happened before in my 16 years of bird walks. Kingfishers, true to their name, eat fish primarily. They like to perch on a branch near a river or pond and dive into the water when they spot prey. They are found in Michigan in the winter only where there is open water.

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Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber

The open water may also have affected my winter photo-taking habits. As I walk in the woods along the river, especially after a snowfall, I find myself including the open and reflecting water in my pictures of winter trees.

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The winter isn’t over yet, but it is unlikely that the Rouge River in Eliza Howell will have a real ice covering any time this winter. Weather is variable and there have been other Januaries that were even warmer than January 2020 (according to the National Weather Service, 2020 was the 12th warmest on record), so I am not suggesting any long-term trends here.

I just miss the ice cover.

 

Merlin: An Uncommon Falcon Winters Here

In January 2019 I again spotted a Merlin in Eliza Howell Park, the fourth straight winter that I have seen at least one in this Detroit location. A Merlin is a small falcon, about the size of a Blue Jay, that feeds primarily on small birds (estimated to be 80% of its diet).

(This picture was taken recently at Belle Isle in Detroit.)

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Merlins breed in the North (mostly in Canada) and winter in the West and deep South/Central America, uncommon throughout their range. According to most range maps, like the one below from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, they are in southern Michigan only as migrants passing through.

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But some do winter here, probably more commonly now than in the past. As noted, I have seen them in Eliza Howell in each of the last four winters. But before that, I saw one in only two of the previous 10 years.

In reviewing other range maps, I did find one that recorded the Merlin’s Winter presence near Lake Erie, the map published by Audubon. Note the small blue area.

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Regardless of what range maps show, the Merlin is definitely (now) a Winter bird in Southeast Michigan. One should not expect to see one very often, however, given its overall low numbers. During the 2019 annual three-month-long count of migrating raptors at the Detroit River Hawk Watch, there were only 34 Merlins counted. Compare this number with 64,336 Broad-winged Hawks (the most common) and with 62 Golden Eagles, another uncommon bird in this part of the country.

A Merlin often perches in a tree near an open or brushy area, looking for small birds on or near the ground. I tend to check the scattered leafless trees during every Winter visit, looking for the silhouette. When I spot one, I try to walk close enough to identify and to watch. They are not spooked as easily as many other raptors, so one can sometimes get quite close before they fly away.

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Falcons are very fast flyers and a Merlin uses its speed to catch small birds in flight. On one of my first experiences of a Merlin in Eliza Howell, I watched as one flew into the woods with a bird in its talons, perched in a tree by the river, and spent the next half hour removing the feathers (which floated down to the river) and consuming its catch.

They are usually solitary, but on the recent Belle Isle occasion, we came upon a pair.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Merlin the bird is perhaps not as well-known as Merlin the wizard (in Arthurian legend). This is understandable, as it is not numerous anywhere and not typically a resident of the eastern half of the United States. But it is out hunting from a perch on Winter days in Southeast Michigan and it is great to occasionally have the opportunity to observe.

The Foraging Four: A Mixed Flock in Winter

According to the old saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” Sometimes. Sometimes flocks of birds are made up of different species, like the flocks of small birds that I look for – and frequently find – when I walk in the woods of Eliza Howell Park in winter.

The mixed flocks vary a little from one to another, but usually include the four species that I have come to think of as the winter woodland foursome. Clockwise from top left: Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch.

         Thank you to Margaret Weber for the use of her photos in this posting.

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The Eliza Howell flocks are typically small, usually just 6 – 8, made up of 2-3 chickadees and 1-2 of each of the others. They tend to somewhat scattered, a loose flock rather than a tight one. Since the first bird I see is often a chickadee, I tend to think of the Black-capped Chickadee as the flock leader.

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I always stop walking when I see a chickadee to watch it and to check for companions. It flits from small branch to branch to log, checking openings in the bark or wood, foraging for insect eggs and whatever else is available to eat. Sometimes it drops to the ground looking for seeds.

Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest of the woodpeckers that live year-round in Southeast Michigan. They sometimes search for food higher in trees, but when moving with the mixed flock, they tend to forage quite low. Only the male has the red on the back of the head.

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The Tufted Titmouse is perhaps the most striking in appearance of this foursome. It also has a name that might seem somewhat peculiar. The “tufted” part is not surprising; it refers to the crest. “Tit” is an old Anglo-Saxon wood meaning something small. “Mouse” apparently comes from a word referring to any bird.

Of the four, Tufted Titmouse is least common in Eliza Howell. If one of the foursome is missing, it is usually the titmouse.

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White-breasted Nuthatches are sometimes referred to as the upside-down birds. They forage mostly on tree trunks and large branches, often heading down the tree.

The nuthatch is the one of the four that is most commonly heard, repeating a loud “yank.”

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The small woodland mixed flocks sometimes include another species or two (Dark-eyed Junco or Brown Creeper, perhaps), but these four are the regulars. As I stand and watch, they move through quickly, often gone minutes after I saw the first one. But I always look for them and the ‘foraging four” brighten many a gray day in winter.