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.

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.

Some Recent FOYs

“FOY,” meaning first-of-the-year observation, appears frequently in my notes about my visits to Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year. There is something new to be seen every day.

Here are a few selected FOYs from recent walks, each of which seems noteworthy in its own way.

1.FOY Wild Lupine.

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Lupine tends to be the first to bloom each year among the flowers in native wildflower field at Eliza Howell. It is starting to bloom now and I always note it both because of its attractiveness and as a herald of all that is to come.

2.FOY Baltimore Oriole Nest

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The nesting Baltimore Orioles are one of the highlights of the Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell each June. (This year it is Saturday, June 8, at 8:00 a.m. – free and open to all.)

These orioles typically arrive in the first week of May and begin building nests in the third week of the month. The picture here was taken on May 18; the female was weaving.

3.FOY Burrowing Crayfish Hole

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Crayfish (also called crawfish and sometimes crawdads) are gilled and clawed crustaceans, related to lobsters. Some are terrestrial, spending most of their lives away from bodies of water. They burrow down to groundwater and come up at night to eat on land. They are nocturnal and I have no pictures from Eliza Howell, but this hole is evidence that they remain present in the park. This one will probably continue to remove mud as it digs deeper, piling it up near the entrance in the shape of a chimney (or volcano).

4.FOY Common Milkweed

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The common milkweed is a wildflower made famous as a host plant for Monarch butterfly eggs and larvae. Right after I saw the FOY Monarch on May 15, I checked a spot where I have found early milkweeds in other years. They are up and growing and will be ready any time the Monarchs are ready to lay eggs.

5.FOY Fledgling Robins

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The day after I took this picture of 4 young robins filling the nest, they left it. While I have been observing a number of different bird nests this spring, this is the first that I have watched successful fledging.

6.FOY Opossum Encounter

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On a recent walk in the EHP woods, I met this opossum along the path. “Possums” are nocturnal mammals and this daytime encounter reminds me that they are sometimes visible during the day. Maybe someday I see a mother opossum with several young on her back. That would be a great lifetime first (designated in my notes by “L” for “lifer.”)

7.FOY Honeysuckle Blossoms

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The redbuds and the crabapples have already been blooming for some time, but one of my favorite blossoms, honeysuckle, is just beginning. Most of the honeysuckle in the park have white blossoms, but a few, like this one, tend toward pink. The picture was taken on May 21.

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This list of recent FOYs could be considerably longer, but it is time to get away from the desk and back to the park to see what is new today!

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!

 

Mallard: First among Dabblers

The many duck species found in North America are sometimes described as either “diving ducks” or “dabbling ducks.” During recent March walks along the river in Eliza Howell Park, I have been watching the best known of all dabbling ducks, the Mallard.

At this time of the year, Mallards are usually seen as a female-male pair.

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         Note: All bird photos included here are courtesy of Margaret Weber.

“Divers” forage for food by diving and swimming under water, while “dabblers” are surface feeders; they sometimes put their heads under water but do not submerge to seek food. Dabblers like shallow water and are also referred to as “puddle ducks.” They also feed on land at times.

In Eliza Howell, they are most commonly found on the river but are sometimes seen in the toad breeding pond in the spring (before the pond goes dry). And they are sometimes found even in a flooded roadway. In this picture, a female is surface feeding.

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Mallards are present all year, whenever there is ice-free water (I have seen them in 11 of the last 15 Januaries). Outside of the breeding season, they often congregate in small flocks.

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It seems fitting to refer to Mallards as first among dabblers for a number of reasons. They are the most common and most familiar duck, found throughout North America and Eurasia. They are the biological ancestor of almost all domesticated ducks. The Mallard is both widely hunted as a wild duck and at home in many parks.

The “quack” that most of us tend to associate with ducks in general is the sound of the female Mallard (the male vocalizes differently) and the Mallard is the first duck that many of us encounter in our lives. The picture that often comes to mind when we think of a native wild “duck” is that of the green-headed male Mallard.

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As is common among ducks, the female incubates the eggs and cares for the young entirely on her own. Her colors make it very difficult for a predator to spot her when she is on the nest half covered by the dead grasses and leaves that remain from the previous year.

Mallards nest in Eliza Howell and I occasionally find a nest – always by surprise when I happen to get so close to a hidden nest that the bird flies out. The females lay about 12 eggs (usually one a day) and incubate for about 28 days after all the eggs are laid. The young are ready to leave the nest about a day after hatching and follow the mother to water, where one of the annual joys of bird watchers is observing several young swimming behind a Mallard mother.

When I came across this nest as the hen flew out, it looked like egg-laying was still in process and she had just added an egg to an incomplete clutch.

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Mallards have lived in proximity with humans for centuries and in some parks, especially where they are fed by park visitors, they are quite “tame.” Those in Eliza Howell are in a more natural setting. They are almost always present, however, and provide an opportunity for visitors to observe their behavior.

The Red Wings Are Coming

It was on “the eighteenth of April, in seventy five” (in Longfellow’s poem) that “the midnight ride of Paul Revere” occurred, when he spread the alarm that the Redcoats are coming.

As the first of March approaches every year, it is time to announce, with eager anticipation instead of alarm, that the Red Wings are coming to Eliza Howell Park (the Red-winged Blackbirds, that is, not the Detroit professional hockey team).

Usually the first of the summer residents to return for the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds often arrive when winter is still very much present. Twice in the last 10 years I have seen the first of them on February 27.

The males seem to be in a particular hurry to claim a breeding territory.

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       Note: The bird photos here are all by Margaret Weber.

As I enumerated in a posting last year (“The March 10 (or 11),” February 22, 2018), the bird population in the park begins to grow rapidly in March. Among these early arrivals, the Red-winged Blackbird is usually the first and often the most easily visible.

The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till late March. These females will find the males, with their bright red patches and singing loudly, ready to welcome them to the territories they have claimed.

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Females look very different. In fact, it can take some experience to identify them as the same species; they resemble sparrows in some ways.

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As can be seen from the range map, most RWBs winter in the states and some do not have far to travel to reach Detroit before spring does. (The map is taken from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In Eliza Howell Park, there are several nesting “pairs” each year. I put “pairs” in quotation marks because this is a species that does not breed as a simple one-male one-female pair. The male often mates with and protects several females in his territory and genetic studies have shown that quite frequently the nestlings are not all sired by the territorial male.

In marshes, Red-winged Blackbirds often nest in cattails. Outside of the marshes, and in Eliza Howell Park, they nest in tall grasses or in shrubs and small trees. The nests are open on top and often have 4 eggs. I found this nest in May a couple years ago.

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The picture is not very clear because I didn’t linger long enough to get a good shot. Red-winged blackbirds are very aggressive in protecting their territory and their nests. They chase much larger birds and animals of all sizes, including humans. It is advisable to have head protection of some sort when walking near nesting Red-winged Blackbirds. It is common to experience “dive bombing” that seems to be aimed directly at the head.

They come flying, not just to impress females, but also to protect against intruders.

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The Red Wings are coming. The spring birding season is beginning.