Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns: Coming Soon

It is almost September and the acorns are nearing maturity. A fascinating Eliza Howell bird-watching occasion will begin soon.

Blue Jays in southern Michigan in September are both migrants and year-round residents. Blue Jay migration is different from that of most other birds. They are found throughout their general range in both summer and winter, but large numbers move from one location to another in spring and fall. Mid-September to early October is the time of the largest numbers in the park, many more than in the rest of the year.

Eliza Howell has a number of large oak trees within the road loop and the acorn crop is the main attraction for the jays.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Last year (2017), I did more careful observation than previously. It began with noticing that many of the acorns that I was crunching as I walked under one of the pin oak trees were really just the caps; there were far fewer nuts on the ground. I thought that the jays were probably responsible for removing the caps but I had never really given careful attention to their harvesting behavior, beyond observing their preference for oak and beech trees.

I decided to watch. In the late morning of September 22, I sat in the shade of another oak tree and watched the pin oak the Blue Jays were frequenting.

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My observations:

  • The number of jays coming and going was considerably greater than I had expected. Those flying out almost always often had an acorn in the beak.
  • Individuals in the tree moved quickly from one small branch to another, efficiently securing acorns (with only a few being dropped or knocked to the ground).
  • After picking an acorn, the jays flitted to a larger limb, where they held the acorn with the feet and pecked or hammered at it.
  • While in some cases they might have been breaking the acorn open and eating it, the hammering was most often to remove the cap, which fell to the ground.
  • The jays then appeared to swallow the nut whole and move on to get another.
  • I knew that jays do not eat acorns whole, so I wondered exactly what was going on. More watching revealed a bulging throat pouch in some of the jays.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I knew, of course, that Blue Jays carried off acorns to store for future use, but I assumed they carried only one at a time, in the beak. Reviewing some published reports on the acorn storing behavior of jays, I found that they typically carry several acorns at a time to cache. They hold acorns in their “gular pouch” (usually 2 – 3, sometimes more), may carry another in the mouth, and have in the beak as well. They take them to the caching location (which may be a half mile away or more), regurgitate them, and hide each individually on the ground.

The next day I went back for further observation of the jays in the same pin oak tree. From a stationary position where I could see the entire tree from top to bottom, but where I could not observe the “back side,” I watched the Blue Jays coming and going to the tree for a 30 minute period on a sunny morning, from 9:56 a.m. to 10: 26 a.m.

  • I recorded jays flying into the tree 94 times and flying out 98 times.
  • I estimate that there were 7 or more birds in the tree at any given time.
  • I have no way of knowing how many individual jays returned how many times, so cannot estimate of the total number of individuals harvesting pin oak acorns from that one tree.
  • If I assume that the average trip out included at least 2 – 3 acorns, and recognize that this was just a 30-minute segment of one day (the jays have been “working” the tree for a number of days and for hours each day), it is likely that the number of acorns harvested by Blue Jays from this one tree this one year may be 8,000 or more.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I now have additional questions. Based on what I observed, I now wonder whether I can continue to assume that most of the Blue Jays present in the park every September are migrating through. As I watch the jays in the tree, there was clearly much more “pouching” of the acorns than eating on the spot. Do migrating Blue Jays that are not going to be in the area for more than a short period of time harvest acorns and cache them? Maybe a number of year-round jays from neighborhoods outside the park come to the park in September for the acorn harvest?

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The acorns in August remind me of what is coming and I am looking forward to September watching. Perhaps I will learn a little more about these common birds this year. Perhaps I will have additional questions.

Warbler Watch: They’re Migrating Again

In the middle of August I begin to anticipate the birds migrating southward who will begin showing up in Eliza Howell Park before the end of the month. I am thinking, at this particular time, of one species (Common Nighthawk) and a whole bird family (Warblers). I hope to comment more on Nighthawks in another post. This is about the warbler migration. Many warblers are now leaving the North Woods and heading our way.

Invitation: Detroit Audubon is sponsoring a bird walk at Eliza Howell Park on Saturday, September 8, starting at 8:00 a.m. The event is open to anyone interested and there is no cost.

Of the 20 or so warbler species that pass through the park on their way south each year (most from late August to late September), a select few are pictured here with a range/migration map for each. The yellow section on the map is the breeding range, the purple is the winter range, and the pink indicates the areas over which they migrate.

Canada Warbler

Canada warbler

Canada Warbler Migration

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All the warbler photos in this essay were taken by Margaret Weber.

The maps are from Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, The Warbler Guide, 2013.

Most warblers are long-distance migrants that spend much less time in their North Woods breeding habitat than on the wintering ground and in migration. It was only a short time ago, in May, when they last passed through here, as they headed north. Since then, they have built nests, incubated eggs, fed their young, and are now heading back to locations where insects can be found throughout the winter months.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia 2018

Magnolia Warbler Migration

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When we last saw migrating warblers in Detroit in May, they were in their bright breeding plumage, as represented in these pictures. Now many of them will be arriving in a somewhat different and somewhat duller fall/winter look. The process of learning to identify warblers involves learning the visual variations from spring to fall, a sometimes challenging project that may take a few years. Fortunately, the Fall migration is spread over more weeks than the brief intense Spring migration so there is a little more time to develop field skills.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

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Chestnut-sided Warbler Migration

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Annual bird migration is a fascinating natural phenomenon. Warblers are very small birds. Chestnut-sided Warblers, for example, are 4 – 5 inches in length and weigh about 0.4 oz. Most of the tiny warblers migrate a couple thousand miles twice each year. It is hard to imagine the energy required, but easy to understand the fuel stops along the way. Since many small birds migrate at night, early morning, as soon as it is warm enough for insect activity, is often a good time to see them as they begin to feed.

Blackburnian Warbler

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Blackburian Warbler Migration

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I don’t expect to see every migrating warbler species every Fall in EHP; their stops are brief and not always in the same location. Good bird observations often result from being “in the right place at the right time” and the right place and time cannot always be predicted with full accuracy. Based on past experiences and years of records, however, I can quite confidently predict that Blackburians will be visible and that they will be among the warblers seen before the end of August. Some of them do not have far to fly from their breeding ground to Detroit.

Wilson’s Warbler

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Wilson’s Warbler Migration

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As can be noted from the maps above, many warblers that are seen in eastern United States are not found in western states. Wilson’s warbler is an exception. It migrates through/over almost every state.

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There is a saying common among social justice advocates and environmentalists: “Think globally, act locally.” The big picture provides the context and, at times, the incentive for effective and significant local projects and behavior.

In a somewhat similar way, local nature observation and appreciation can be even more enriching and satisfying with an awareness of the big picture. When I see warblers stopping in the park on their way south over the next several weeks, I am thrilled just to see them but also impressed and amazed at where they have been and where they are going.

 

Finding Nesting Birds in EHP: 2018 Report

Each year since 2010, I keep a record of the bird species that I observe nesting in Eliza Howell Park. As of July 1, I have seen 22 different species actively nesting in the park this year. It is possible that I will still add to the number (last year I found American Goldfinches, a late-nesting species, building nests in July), but this seems like a good time to report.

This list is only of those species whose nests I actually find, and does not include those I only see carrying food for their young or feeding fledglings; I need to actually find the nest. The total number of species over the 9 years is 34.

At the bottom, I list the 22 species. The pictures, all taken in 2018 in EHP, provide a few examples of experiencing the nests.

The latest found is also one that I have not found in the park prior to this year – Red-eyed Vireo. The nest, built the last week of June, is likely the second brood for this pair.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Note how the vireo has twisted its body around to look at us, without getting off the eggs.

Much earlier in the nesting season I came across this ground nest of a Killdeer. It is not much of a nest in terms of construction, but is wonderfully camouflaged. (For more on this, see my April 24 post, “Killdeer: A Story of Nest and Eggs.”)

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Normally, I find a nest only when the bird’s behavior leads me to it; it is unusual to find nests by simply looking for nests. But, occasionally, I see a nest before I see the bird. In April, when shrubs were still free of leaves, I saw this nest.

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Revisiting it, I found a female Northern Cardinal incubating. One day, when she was absent, I took a picture of the inside.

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Most birds that nest in Eliza Howell are quite featherless and helpless when they first hatch (Killdeer, duck, and goose hatchlings are the only exceptions). American Robins are the most common nesting species in Eliza Howell and I stole a very quick picture of the inside of one nest shortly after hatching.

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The Blue Jays being fed below are much further developed.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I wrote a couple weeks ago about watching a pair of Mourning Doves building a nest (posted June 13). At last look, incubation continues. This is probably the male on the eggs. I cannot tell that from observation, but those who study Mourning Doves report that the male usually takes the day shift and the female the night shift.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

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Nests found in 2018          (** = nest in tree cavity)

  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Killdeer
  • Mourning Dove
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker**
  • Northern Flicker**
  • Downy Woodpecker **
  • Barn Swallow
  • Tree Swallow**
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Blue Jay
  • American Robin
  • Eastern Bluebird (bird box)
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Yellow Warbler
  • European Starling **
  • Common Grackle
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Northern Cardinal

Finding nesting birds is definitely a highlight of my spring and early summer. Thanks to Detroit Audubon field trips, every June since 2011 I have had the opportunity to share some of this excitement with others.

Black Cherry Trees: May to August

There are about two dozen large wild Black Cherry trees scattered over several grassy acres in Eliza Howell Park. They are mature trees, many of them more than 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide.

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While I pay some attention to these trees in my walks throughout the year, I devote considerably more time from May to August.

May is blossom time. These cherry trees have more fruit in some years than in others; the plentiful blossoms in 2018 indicate a very productive fruit crop this year.

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Even if they were not an indication of the fruit to come, the lovely blossoms would definitely engage my interest and attention.

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May and June are the main bird-nest watching months and the cherry trees are popular nesting sites. Even before the blossoms appear, Baltimore Orioles build their nests; I found 2 in cherry trees in 2018. Also in 2018, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has a cherry-tree nest and a bird box attached to a cherry tree this spring is being used by a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. There are no doubt other nests I have not seen.

This oriole below is feeding young in June in a cherry tree.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

As soon as the blooms fall, the green cherries are evident.

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Many birds cannot wait till the cherries are ripe (black), but begin eating them when they are red. By August, the trees are attracting numerous fruit-eating birds. American Robins and Cedar Waxwings are the most common and most dedicated cherry eaters.

Typically, about half of the robins appear to be juveniles with their heavily spotted breasts. And a number of the waxwings have blurry streaks and lack crests, indicating that they are youngsters as well.

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Black cherries are edible for humans as well, though they are quite bitter, at least until fully ripe (if the birds let them hang on that long). The reddish brown wood of the black cherry tree is often used in furniture and cabinet making.

By September other annual natural happenings in the park take up more of my attention and my walk route changes. But until then, the cherries are definitely part of my nature walks.

 

Mourning Dove: Serious Breeder, Slapdash Nest Builder

Two days after the June 9 Detroit Audubon bird walk in Eliza Howell Park, a field trip that was focused on about a dozen different nesting song birds, I came upon another new nest being constructed. A pair of Mourning Doves was energetically putting their nest together.

The Mourning Dove is one of the most common birds in the country. They are not usually described as “beautiful;” perhaps their abundance diminishes our appreciation for their lovely appearance. When I watch them carefully, I am often struck by details, like their pink legs and feet.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Mourning doves have a prolonged breeding season, nesting early and often. In the south, they can have up to 6 broods a year. Here, it more likely three. The nest building I watched was, I have no doubt, at least the second of the season for this pair.

They sometimes place their nests on human-made structures or on top of old nests of other birds, but most frequently – and in each case that I have seen in the park – they are on (nearly) horizontal tree limbs, 8 – 20 feet high. This one is being built in a Locust tree. I would not have seen it if the bird building activity had not led me to it.

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The nest building was fascinating to watch and I observed for about 10 minutes. Mourning Doves are not bothered by human observers, as long as we are more than a few feet away. Their nests are made up of twigs and grass stems without an inner cup. The male brings the material to the female on the limb, and she puts the pieces together. While I was watching, the male was bringing grass stems. Some tall grass had been mowed several days before and long dry stems were easily available.

My observations included these:

  • The male made many quick trips. I timed them by counting seconds and his return trips with nesting material were, on the average, less than 20 seconds apart. A couple times he was back within 5 seconds.
  • He brought one stem at a time and each time stepped on the back of the sitting female to offer the construction piece.
  • I don’t know whether it was because she wasn’t ready or because the offering wasn’t what she wanted at that time or whether it was an accidental drop, but a number of the grass stems were dropped and floated to the ground.

Mourning Doves do not spend a long time making their nests, completing them in just a couple days. They are flimsy and not lined or insulated, but they have been successful for the doves for a very long time. They lay just two eggs, which are all white, and both the parents share incubation duties.

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Drawing taken from Baicich and Harrison, Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, second edition.

In 10 minutes, the male made about 30 trips to the ground and back. It then paused its frantic pace (at least it appeared frantic to me), and both male and female flew off together for break.

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When I walked by the Locust tree again an hour later, they were back at work.

 

Nesting Birds: Female and Male Roles

Most of the songbirds that breed in Eliza Howell Park are nesting now and providing great opportunities to learn about bird behavior. Part of my observation is focused on the different role that female and male parents play in nest building, incubation of eggs, and feeding the young. It varies somewhat from species to species.

After returning from time in the park, I often check the published research to expand my knowledge and/or confirm my observations.

Note: All photos were taken by Margaret Weber. Thank you.

barn swallow love

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows nest every year under the Fenkell bridge over the Rouge River and sometimes under park shelters in nests that are made of mud and lined with plant material. Female and male Barn Swallows not only look alike, they also share many aspects of breeding.

They both build the nest.

They both incubate the eggs.

They both tend the nestlings.

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male ruby throated protrait

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The first picture is of a female on the nest; the second of the male in a perching position that is often taken during nesting season. The two sexes do not have similar roles.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

The female alone tends the nestlings.

The male is around, often perching (on guard?) on different trees in nesting territory, but does not assist the female.

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Baltimore Oriole

Several Baltimore Oriole hanging nests are made every year in large trees  in Eliza Howell. Based on the time this year’s nests were built, I expect that eggs will hatch very soon and the feeding nestlings phase will begin. The picture is of a female feeding the young.

The female does most of the nest building. I have seen males occasionally bring material for the female to weave.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpeckers are the most common (at least the most noticeable) woodpeckers in the park, boring new nesting holes in dead trees each year. The picture is of a male during the excavation process, which takes several days.

Both female and male bore the hole, but most of it is done by the male.

Both incubate the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.

coming at you

Red-winged Blackbird

The male Red-winged Blackbird (pictured) is sometimes polygamous and watches over more than one nest in his territory. Many of us have had the experience of the male “yelling” at us and flying in low, often right above/at the head, to chase us away when we get close to a nest or to fledglings.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both female and male tend the nestlings.

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By contrast to migration time, when the focus is on identifying the different species as they appear, in nesting time my attention is much more on bird behavior. I find this even more interesting.

 

 

 

 

Bright Beautiful Breeding Baltimore Orioles

(Note: See below for information on the upcoming Eliza Howell nesting birds field trip — June 9, 2018)

Each year in May and June, visitors to Eliza Howell Park are treated to the sight and sound of Baltimore Orioles. The orioles spend the winters in Central America and arrive back in Detroit, with great regularity, during the first week of May. For those who are looking, their colors make them hard to miss.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

They begin to construct their intricately woven nests two to three weeks after the first arrivals. I noted the first Eliza Howell Baltimore Oriole this year on May 4 and saw a pair engaged in nest construction on May 18.

In a typical year, several different pairs nest in the park. From May 18 to May 21 this year, I have already seen 5 different nests under construction.

Most of the work of nest construction is done by the female over a period of 4 – 8 days. The nest is suspended from a twig, usually near the end of a branch. It is a pouch that looks something like a hanging sock. It is about 6 inches long, with a small opening at the top, and a bulging bottom (where the eggs are incubated). It is made of grasses, other plant fibers, and sometimes artificial material like yarn.

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The nest pictured above was made in the park last year, less than 10 feet from the ground. Usually they are much higher, in large leafy, deciduous trees, but not in a forest. Parks like Eliza Howell, with big scattered trees, are ideal spots. Over the years, I have come to know their tree preferences; this cottonwood by the road is definitely one. 

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The nests are easiest to find at this time of the year, during construction, when the bird is making frequent trips with nesting material. Without the bird leading the observer’s eye to the nest, it is very difficult to locate.

The following picture shows an incomplete nest in a typical location, hanging near the end of a branch. When the leaves are fully developed, it will be almost impossible to see from the ground. (This is also in a cottonwood tree.)

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Another good time to find a nest is during feeding time, when the adults (both male and female) make frequent visits to the nest to feed the young.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Detroit Audubon schedules an annual field trip to Eliza Howell for a guided look at nesting orioles and a number of other nesting species. It is timed for feeding hatchlings time. After the orioles complete the nests and lay the eggs, incubation (by female alone) takes about 12 – 14 days. 

     Detroit Audubon Nesting Songbirds Field Trip

     Saturday, June 9, 8:00 a.m. – approximately 10:00 a.m.

     Everyone is welcome, no cost. Audubon membership not required.

     Meeting location: about halfway around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The orioles are called “Baltimore” because someone was reminded of Lord Baltimore’s yellow and black coat of arms. To me, they look much more orange than yellow. Regardless, they and I will be in the park to welcome everyone on June 9. 

Warbler Time at Eliza Howell: Neotropical Migrants

A neotropical migratory bird is a bird that breeds in Canada and/or the U.S. and spends (our) winter in Mexico, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean. Many such species arrive in and/or pass through SE Michigan in May.

Over 2 dozen different species of warblers alone arrive at this time of the year and many, many bird watchers head for migrating warbling hotspots like Magee Marsh in Ohio, Point Pelee in Ontario, and Tawas Point in Michigan.

Warbler chasers come to these hotspots from all over, in big numbers, and with big cameras. These tiny birds (about the size of chickadees) are one of the key reasons that bird tourism is a big business in some locations.

Warblers also pass through Eliza Howell Park, though in smaller numbers. Here are some of the migrating warblers that I tend to see every May in the park. Each picture is of a male in breeding season plumage.

The following photos were all taken by Margaret Weber. My thanks for the permission to use and my appreciation of the quality of the shots.

Blackburnian 2018

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnians pass through here on their way to their breeding grounds from mid-Michigan through much of Canada.

 

Black & White Warbler 1

Black and White Warbler

This is one of the few warblers that forages for insects along the branches of trees rather than in the leaves.

 

Chestnut sided 2018

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warblers glean insects from the bottom of leaves. Their breeding area includes much of Michigan.

 

northern parula

Northern Parula

In breeding season, this forest bird is usually high in the canopy. In migration, however, it is often low enough for good looks.

 

nashville warbler

Nashville Warbler

The Nashville Warbler is misnamed. It migrates through Tennessee, but neither summers nor winters there. It breeds in northern Michigan and Canada, nesting on the ground.

 

Magnolia 2018

Magnolia Warbler

The Magnolia Warbler was given its name 200 years ago by an ornithologist who found it in a magnolia tree in Mississippi (in migration). It breeds in the northern forest, far from any magnolias.

 

Am Redstart 2018

American Redstart

American redstarts breed in much of the eastern United States, favoring woodlands with abundant shrubs. I have not yet observed them in breeding season in Eliza Howell Park, but it would not surprise me if I do some year.

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There is not much that can compare with the excitement of seeking and finding these beautiful birds as they near the end of their long migration northward. During their May migration through this part of the country, approximately May 5 to May 20, I spend some time with the crowds at the famous hotspots.

That is exciting, but it is even more satisfying for me to see these warblers right here in this Detroit park. I hope to introduce others to the experience.

 

Chickadee Nesting Discernment

As someone who has a great interest in observing bird nest sites and nest construction, I sometimes wish I could communicate directly with the birds. I would especially like more information on the discernment process, the determination that a particular site is or is not suitable as a nesting spot this year.

It is not rare to see a pair of birds begin what appears to me be nest construction, only to find out in later visits that the birds have abandoned this effort.

The most recent example is Black-capped Chickadees. On April 18, 2018, I was walking near the edge of the woods in Eliza Howell Park and focused my binoculars on a dead stump.

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Chickadees are cavity nesters and they sometimes nest in an old woodpecker holes and sometimes dig out their own. When they dig their own, they usually do so in a rotten stump. So, when I saw a pair of blackcaps pecking away at the stump in April, I was excited, thinking that I might have found a chickadee nest for the first time in 5 years or so.

The next day, they were there again, so I asked Margaret Weber to see if she could get some pictures of the chickadees excavating a nesting hole. This is what she found.

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Two things are noteworthy here: the two pictures are of different beginning openings and in neither is the bird chipping away. I began to think that maybe they had been doing some exploratory drilling and were, at the time of these photos, examining what they had found.

On subsequent visits, I did not see them at the stump again and the holes were not enlarged. They have remained the same for more than a week.

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The question that I would ask if I spoke Black-capped Chickadee is this: What was unsatisfactory about this site?

While there were environmental factors (a couple Blue Jays active at the edge of the woods and a couple of humans watching), I suspect that, given the two starter holes, the reason has to do with the nature of stump wood. Perhaps it was not rotten and soft enough. After all, chickadees do not have woodpecker beaks. This is my current hypothesis.

When I next find an active self-made chickadee nest, I can compare how soft and yielding the wood is. I don’t know how long that will be, but probably before I am able to communicate directly with the birds.

Killdeer: A Story of Nest and Eggs

Killdeer usually return to Eliza Howell Park in early March; this year I had my first sighting on March 9. Typically, there are a few in the park from March till late Summer or early Fall.

Killdeer are plovers, a type of shorebird, but they are often found in open areas some distance from water. In EHP, they are most commonly seen in the fields within the road loop

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Killdeer are early nester. In the years that I find a nest, it is in April. On April 18 this year, while walking through the field with a companion, we saw a Killdeer run slowly away from our path. Stopping to get a better look at the bird, we watched as it did its broken-wing act. This effort to try to get us to follow it rather than continue where we were headed suggested that we were close to the nest.

I looked down in the direction we had been walking and there, three feet ahead, was the nest.

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Killdeer lay their eggs (almost always 4) in a shallow depression in the ground, where they incubate unprotected from spring rains, cold, and occasional snow. There is no structure to stand out and the egg coloring makes them well camouflaged. I am sure that I have walked right past Killdeer nests quite a number of times without knowing it.

For the size of the bird (a Killdeer is very slightly larger than an American Robin), the eggs are large, about 70% larger than those of Robins. The egg size is important. The larger eggs contain more nutrition and make possible more extensive development before hatching.

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Bird hatchlings are usually described as either “altricial” or “precocial.” Most small birds that nest in Eliza Howell are quite naked and helpless when first hatched and are totally dependent on being care for in the nest (altricial). A Killdeer is precocial, has fluffy feathers when it hatches and can walk away from the nest on the first day and start eating on its own (think precocious).

Greater development in the shell takes longer, however, and the newly hatched Killdeer is about the same “age” as a robin 12 days after hatching. Killdeer eggs are incubated 24 – 26 days and Robin eggs 11- 14 days.

The young Killdeer chicks will not be out in the ground nest helpless after hatching; once hatched, their parents can lead them to other hiding places. Until then, the eggs are at some risk from predators, from being stepped on, and, perhaps, from lawn mowers. I don’t know how long this Killdeer pair has been incubating so far, but hatch date is probably be a couple weeks away yet.