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.

 

Grassland Spring Pond: The Annual Cycle Begins

The recent late February thaw and rains re-filled the shallow pond that I have come to know as “The American Toad Breeding Pond.” This temporary pond exists each year from late Winter or early Spring until the summer. It is a pond for only about 4 – 5 months, but a lot happens in the months that are beginning now.

The pond is found in the grassy area within the road loop and borders (sometimes overflows) the walking path. This picture is from this week.

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When pond appears each year about this time, I modify my wanderings to make sure that I take a careful look at it each time I am in the park. I don’t want to miss the life it attracts.

For most of the year, adult American Toads are solitary, mostly nocturnal, and rarely seen. When they are found, they are typically on land, not in water.

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Sometime in April, the exact time probably determined by temperature and rain, breeding adults head to the pond. Then, throughout the day, the males sound forth with their loud trilling mating calls, announcing themselves to the females.

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Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of males and females converge on the pond and engage in what appears to me to be a mating frenzy. The phenomenon is short-lived; in a couple of days, the adults depart and the pond is quiet again. A few days later the eggs begin to hatch and the tadpoles quietly develop over the next several weeks.

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Killdeer and a few other “shorebirds,” like Solitary Sandpiper, can occasionally be found at the edges of the pond and dabbling ducks, especially Mallards, frequently forage in the water.

A couple years ago this pond was, over a period of days, the hangout of an odd couple – a male Wood Duck and a female Mallard. They were constantly together and may very well have produced hybrid ducklings after they moved on.

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These are some of my memories when the pond fills again. And I look forward to what I might witness at the grassland pond in 2018.

THE MARCH 10 (or 11)

No matter how satisfying winter birding has been, I am always excited as March approaches, ready to welcome back the species that I have not seen since the fall. Many other migrants will be putting in their appearance later, but there is something special about the first spring arrivals each year.

Over the years, I have come to anticipate the arrival in Eliza Howell Park of the same ten species each year in March. One or two of these ten might not show till the beginning April on a rare occasion, but the chances are excellent that I will see these ten in the park in March. It is easier to predict their migration patterns than to predict March weather!

These species have two characteristics in common.

  1. They spend the winters within the United States, only a relatively short distance south; they are not among the neotropical migrants that winter in Central or South America.
  2. Southeastern Michigan is part of their breeding territory; they are returning here for the summer, not just migrating through to destinations further north, as do many of the later spring migrants.
  • Note: All the photos included here were taken by Margaret Weber.

The Red-winged Blackbird is often the first to arrive. The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till April. When the first males arrive, their red shoulder patches may still be somewhat winter dull. As the month advances, this changes noticeably and, by the end of March, they are ready to welcome the females with bright patches. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in Eliza Howell Park every year.

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The Common Grackle and the Brown-headed Cowbird (neither is pictured here) also arrive in March unfailingly. Grackles nest in the park. Brown-headed Cowbirds, as brood parasites, do not build their own nests at all. They are, however, very successful in reproducing in Eliza Howell, being specialists in adding an egg to nests of other species.

The Killdeer is also a reliable March arrival, but never in great numbers. I count finding its nest, “hidden out in the open” on the ground, as one of my most exciting nest-searching experiences.

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The Rouge River flows south through Eliza Howell and two miles or so downriver from Eliza Howell, in Rouge Park, there is a Great Blue Heron rookery. This might be where the herons that forage in EH nest, though I do not know that for sure. I do know that I can expect their arrival along the river or in the spring-flooded bottomland in March.

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Hinckley, Ohio, celebrates the annual arrival of the Turkey Vulture (not pictured) every year in the middle of March. It is usually about then that I see the first vultures of the year in EH. They soar overhead, surveying the terrain singly or in small numbers. They will appear repeatedly over the next few months, but I know not where they nest.

Ten years ago the Eastern Bluebird would not have been on this list. They are slowly becoming more regular summer residents of Eliza Howell Park. While Eastern Bluebirds are sometimes seen at other locations in southern Michigan in the winter, I usually do not see them here until March.

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Of the birds on this list, the Wood Duck may be the most thrilling. It arrives regularly on the river in March, the only duck besides the Mallard that is common here. The male in the spring is so striking, especially in the sunlight, that it always produces a “wow” response. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities and definitely breed in the park, evidenced by the presence every year of young ducklings on the river.

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I do not expect to see the Eastern Phoebe until the very last week of the March – and then I can pretty much count on seeing it, often by the river near the footbridge. It has nested under the footbridge more than once. The phoebe is the earliest species in the flycatcher family to arrive and is a definite sign of spring.

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While many woodpeckers remain through the winter (in Eliza Howell, the Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy), the Northern Flicker is a woodpecker that heads south for the winter. Its foraging behavior is a little different from many woodpeckers, spending much of time on the ground searching for insects. It usually returns to Eliza Howell near the end of March and will be drilling a nesting cavity in less than a month, usually in a dead tree.

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I sometimes think that I should include Song Sparrow (not pictured) among the March arrivals (# 11). Every other year or so, a Song Sparrow or two spend part of the winter in Eliza Howell. When they don’t, I can count on seeing them in March.  In breeding season, I often see these sparrows carrying food for their young into thickets, but their well-hidden nests are extremely hard to find.

Some readers may be surprised that the American Robin, perhaps the most recognized of the early birds of spring, is not on this list. Robins are certainly found in much greater numbers starting in March in the park, but every year I see a few throughout the winter.

The appearance of these March species may not result in the frenzied excitement sometimes encountered in popular hotspots during the peak of warbler migration in May. For those of us ready for the first arrivals of spring, however, these early birds provide an occasion for celebration: the first migrants are returning!

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An earlier version of this essay was published in The Flyway, the newsletter of Detroit Audubon, in 2012.