Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bluebirds! Season 4. Episode 8. Peace.

Eastern Bluebird ready to fledge, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
My first thought when I saw the chick perched with its head out of the hole in nesting box 13 was, "Oh no, the cowbird is blocking the entrance and getting all the food while standing on the bodies of its nest mates." A closer look--a bluebird chick. A very quick peek in the box showed four in total, all feathered up and ready to go. I expect they'll fledge sometime this weekend. No sign, after all that, of the cowbird at all.
Black-capped Chickadee nestlings, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
And no sign of the murderous House Sparrow who was still terrorizing the property a couple of weeks ago. Tree Swallows are now in all three boxes the sparrows thought they had a claim on. So, midway through the breeding season, things are surprisingly peaceful. The chickadees have hatched, as have about half of the tree swallows. One box was infested with ants. We'll see how that one turns out....
Tree Swallow, Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
Meanwhile, at our spin-off site, things are better than expected. Three Tree Swallow eggs. The House Sparrow situation, on the other hand, is still unresolved. After I removed the nest and eggs from box 1, they set up in box 2, no doubt driving the swallows to their current location. My only fear is that the male sparrow (who was very agitated when I removed the new nest) will go into a revenge frenzy and take out the swallow eggs. 
Great Blue Herons, Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
And the herons have hatched. I counted two little heads at the top of the nest. I hope this peace will last.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bluebirds! Season 4. Episode 7. Nine new lives. One fewer old one.

Tree Swallows, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Sixteen out of eighteen boxes have nests. Nine have eggs. And two have chicks: nine beautiful new bluebird nestlings.
Four of the nine chicks
They hatched far sooner than the cowbird; the egg is now hidden beneath the nestlings. Hopefully they will overwhelm the cowbird when it finally emerges.
Box seven. Scene of yet another tragedy.
At the same time, let's have yet another moment of silence for yet another tree swallow that has given its life in defense of its nest. Will there ever be justice?
Murderous House Sparrow
Or will the House Sparrow be allowed to continue its reign of terror unabated?

By the way, Bluebirds!: Special Ridge Hill Unit is somehow still going. Only five of seven boxes still on line. (One lost its lid. One was knocked down.) The good? An actual tree swallow nest (no eggs). The bad? Full house sparrow nest, with 4 eggs. Nest box management happened.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Warblers and no Warblers

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
Over the weekend and into Monday, warblers everywhere. I woke up to the sounds of Northern Parula and Black-throated Green warblers in the branches outside my bedroom window. After my daughter left for school, I rushed down to Ridge Hill, to my perfect warbler spot in the picnic area behind the garage. I was not disappointed. A firehose of warbler song (as documented in the video below).

Nothing particularly rare, but a nice diversity of representation. Including this Black and White Warbler, who was the most congenial when it came to photographs.
Black and White Warbler, Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
So when I had the opportunity to get out early today (thanks to a 5:30 a.m. airport drop-off ) I chose to head up to Plum Island and hit Hell-Cat. The punchline? No warblers, except for the local breeders (so a nice assortment of redstarts, actually). Apparently they had all lifted off last night. A lone Wilson's Warbler, spotted by the Marsh Loop, was the only evidence I could find that migration was still a thing.
Marsh Trail
But Plum Island always has gifts to give. Such as the White-crowned Sparrow that just happened to be wandering around the dike. (A consolation for some sad warbler seekers).
White-crowned Sparrow
And the Wild Turkey.
Wild Turkey
There were plenty of sandpipers and yellowlegs and willets around so I thought I might make a shorebird day of it. Down to Sandy Point.
It was cold and windy. Bitter hand-chilling cold. For a while, it was just me and the Piping Plovers.
Piping Plover
And the Tree Swallows.
Tree Swallow on the beach
Yes, Tree Swallows. In the late summer, swarms of Tree Swallows are a common feature of Plum Island, as it is one of their staging areas. I've never seen so many in the spring. Thousands of them. Seemingly knocked down by the high winds. But taking advantage of their situation by going after sand insects. And bothering everyone else. For the willets and sandpipers, something akin to Hitchcock's The Birds.

And when I returned home, what did I find? Warblers, singing from treetops everywhere. Apparently warblers everywhere but Plum Island.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


American Kestrels, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
On a warm, overcast, and then rainy, morning, with bobolinks popping their heads out all over the field, growling orchard orioles going head-to-head, and gray tree frogs laying down their eerie drone, the most exciting thing at the Charles River Peninsula was a distant pair of kestrel silhouettes on the power line.
American Kestrels, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
There's been a lot of kestrel activity at CRP over the past week (to the dismay of tree swallows--though they'll attack anything this time of year...). I figured, as in years past, this was just a migration period tease. But perhaps this year is different. 
American Kestrels copulating, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the odds of the American Kestrel being a CRP-vicinity breeding bird have improved greatly.
American Kestrels, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
It's a good habitat for them. Indeed, as I watched, the female swooped down and grabbed something to eat (it was too far away to determine exactly what). Grasshoppers will be plentiful later in the season. Exactly which hole in which tree they might nest in remains to be seen.

Friday, May 9, 2014

What will brighten a dreary day?

Yellow Warbler, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Nothing like a Yellow Warbler to brighten a dreary day.
Bobolink, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Nothing like a Bobolink to brighten a dreary day.
Bobolinks, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Nothing like a flock of Bobolinks singing all at once to brighten a dreary day.
Nothing like apple blossoms and a singing Baltimore Oriole (Oriole A/B) to brighten a dreary day.

Apple Blossom Time

Song Sparrow on Apple Blossoms
It's apple blossom time. The best time of the year, according to Arthur Cleveland Bent.
Baltimore Oriole on Apple Blossoms
It's the day the Baltimore Orioles arrive in full force. 
Baltimore Oriole on Apple Blossoms
Competing for territory and sharing their songs.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Amidst the songs of grosbeaks
Bobolink, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
and Bobolinks.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Warbler Day

Ovenbird, Marblehead Neck Sanctuary, Marblehead, MA
I can tell it is going to be a good warbler day when I leave the house and immediately hear a black-throated blue in the neighbor's tree. Up to Salem for a meeting, I take a slight detour to Marblehead Neck. It doesn't take long to get my allotment of warbler action: parula, chestnut-sided, black-throated blue, black-throated green, ovenbird (everywhere, strutting like tiny chickens), Canada (a little early?), northern waterthrush (also everywhere, singing loudly). And who was this guy, suddenly appearing trailside?
Kentucky Warbler, Marblehead Neck
That would appear to be a Kentucky Warbler. The cause of some general excitement.
Kentucky Warbler, Marblehead Neck
Such a gorgeous bird. And a nonchalant bird as well. Hardly noticed all the camera clicks.
Kentucky Warbler, Marblehead Neck
And came so close it practically hopped on my toes.

Below is the video version (you'll see two of the photos above being taken). As I was shooting, it came closer and closer until it came so close I had trouble finding it in the viewfinder.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Bluebirds! Season 4. Episode 6. A new enemy emerges.

The boldest Tree Swallow
This is no longer shocking, perhaps, but a third swallow was murdered--this time in Box 6. The House Sparrow is not just a murderer but a serial killer.

House Sparrow on box
Except, in a shocking twist, it turns out there is not just a single murderer, but two. Two brother House Sparrows (they are known associates) out for blood. Perhaps a trap is in order. Meanwhile, swallows continue to tempt fate at Box 5.
Tree Swallows
 And the former owner of Box 6 has already hooked up with a new partner (a young, first year female, from the brown plumage). But doesn't dare enter the box when the sparrow is around.
Tree Swallows
There is a third legit bluebird nest, a little too close for comfort to another one, but so far I haven't seen any direct conflict. Except with tree swallows (who took over the nest for a time). 
Eastern Bluebird
So while the swallows continue to experience turmoil, the bluebirds have been cruising right along. One nest with 5 eggs, another with 4. Until today. A fifth egg, not like the others.
Eastern Bluebird nest
Brown-headed Cowbird female
Unlike House Sparrows, whose eggs may be (and will be) addled with impunity, cowbirds are native birds and are generally protected. So we'll have to watch nature take its course with this one....

How do Blue-gray Gnatcatchers deal with cowbirds? As follows (a female red-winged blackbird is acting as proxy. She was just minding her own business collecting nesting material when this happened). 
And what is happening, you ask, in the Bluebirds! spin-off, "Special Ridge Hill Unit"?
Another lid has fallen off
Never mind. I think this one is on the verge of cancellation. The bluebirds were interested in two boxes. The first ended up full of hornets; the second lost its top. And House Sparrows, previously unknown in Ridge Hill, have miraculously appeared and started nests in at least two boxes. Ugh.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

May 3! The vigil is over.

American Kestrel, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
No more whining about a slow spring. The birds came back overnight and the soundscape at Charles River Peninsula is glorious again. I heard the warbling vireos first.
Warbling Vireo, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Then I knew things were on fire. Baltimore Orioles, Orchard Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks,
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
all singing and in many cases already in direct conflict with competitors. On the warbler front: Common Yellowthroat joined Yellow Warbler at CRP; at Ridge Hill we also had Black and White, Yellow-rumped, and Black-throated Green. (And loudly singing Winter Wren).

Friday, May 2, 2014

May 2. Now with Migration!

Black-capped Chickadee nest, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Now that's more like it. The season's first Yellow Warbler. A nice migratory flock of Savannah Sparrows out in the meadow.
Savannah Sparrow, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
And a whole bunch of Palm Warblers hopping around the understory.
Palm Warbler, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
I trust we'll have some more arrivals tomorrow morning. (How 'bout it orioles?)

No nesting box news. The weather has been so cold and rainy that activity seems to have been put on hold. Still at one tree swallow egg, nine bluebird eggs. The respective bluebird mothers seem to have put in some extra effort during the cold spell. Oh, and a chickadee nest (no eggs yet).

Meanwhile, at Ridge Hill, the Great Blue Heron nest is done and is in use. Mother Heron is now on nest, apparently incubating eggs.
Heron just barely visible at top of nest
And around 11 a.m., I heard a Barred Owl duet. Found this one in the woods along the easement. 
Barred Owl, Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
Things are a little slow at Ridge Hill as well this year, though both the Chipping Sparrows and the Pine Warblers are at full trilling strength now. Had the year's first taste of Gray Treefrog and Winter Wren song this morning. I expect the Ovenbirds to return this weekend.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

May 1!

Snowy Egrets huddle on edges of Old Creek Marsh waiting for the tide to go out.
It is the first of May, right? I'm thinking things are going to be very slow this spring. Or everyone will come all at once tomorrow. For now, I'm happy to see the egrets on Old Creek Marsh (not far my office at Salem State)
Black-crowned Night Heron, Marblehead Neck, Marblehead, MA
and the sleepy night heron at Marblehead Neck. Even if there aren't any warblers there yet. Not one.
Eastern Bluebird and Eastern Kingbird, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Meanwhile, back in Needham, the kingbird has decided to stick around, while Mother Bluebird keeps a watchful eye. (They were jostling for the best fly-catching launch points).
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
And gnatcatchers are everywhere. Is this some sort of gnatcatcher irruption year? Or with nothing else to distract us, do they get to be the center of attention for once? Not that I mind. These are fairy birds and they seem to have already discovered a perfect nesting spot.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
That would appear to be nesting material. They seem rather excited about the location.

[UPDATE: Here's the nest from a different angle.]
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest