Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Soothing my spirit, seeking solace for the soul

leaf-i77a2875-maria-de-bruyn-resAlthough more people in the USA voted for the Democratic ticket than the Republican one, the electoral college system will likely lead to the installation of a Republican presidency unless election re-counts affect those designated votes. This distresses me greatly given the persons who have been announced as top administration advisers and cabinet members. My work on social issues and on behalf of vulnerable people will continue and is increasing. But in the meantime, to keep from going into a 100% depressed mode, I have sought solace in nature walks and spiritual strengthening in the flora and fauna I see.

painted-turtle-i77a2277-maria-de-bruyn-resToday, I will share some of words of wisdom from a conscientious spiritual leader with you, along with some photos of nature’s beauties seen during my walks at the Cane Creek Reservoir, Sandy Creek Park and Mason Farm Biological Reserve just before and since the November election. It’s a bit of a long blog but offers some visual sustenance to ponder, like the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta, above) at Mason Farm and the yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) at Sandy Creek sunning in the morning sun despite chilly temperatures. (From a distance, the slider looked a bit as if there was something with open jaws in the pond!)

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Early in the morning, you can find frost- and dew-covered plants and a few remaining flowers glistening in the sun.

 

 

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Blanket flower (Gaillardia)                           Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

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Later in the morning, the autumn-colored leaves make nice patterns as you search for birds high and low. And occasionally you get to see the fabled “leaf bird”.

 

 

 

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When looking high, you may find the birds looking down on you; face-level stares as you gaze straight ahead may also occur!

white-throated-sparrow-i77a6365-maria-de-bruyn-res                     eastern-towhee-i77a1659maria-de-bruyn-res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

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At Cane Creek, the killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) make their presence known by their distinctive calls and you can enjoy their gorgeous appearance as they fly over the lake.

 

 

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Taking care of our planet is like taking care of our houses. Since we human beings come from Nature, there is no point in our going against Nature, which is why I say the environment is not a matter of religion or ethics or morality. These are luxuries, since we can survive without them. But we will not survive if we continue to go against Nature.  – Dalai Lama

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Many birds, like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), are busy finding seeds and nuts for their meals.

 

 

tufted-titmouse-i77a1965maria-de-bruyn-res  white-breasted-nuthatch-i77a2671maria-de-bruyn-res

Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)          White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

song-sparrow-i77a1499maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-chickadee-i77a8444-maria-de-bruyn-res

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)                 Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Sometimes, it involves hanging upside down to snag a tasty morsel and their wings help in balancing.

carolina-chickadee-i77a2699maria-de-bruyn    ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a2565-maria-de-bruyn-res

Carolina chickadee                                    Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

If we unbalance Nature, humankind will suffer. Furthermore, as people alive today, we must consider future generations: a clean environment is a human right like any other. It is therefore part of our responsibility towards others to ensure that the world we pass on is as healthy, if not healthier, than when we found it. – Dalai Lama

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At Sandy Creek, a group of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) flew down to investigate what had dropped to the ground from an overflowing garbage can but they soon flew off to seek more normal food elsewhere.

 

 

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A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) was stalking the pond for fish; after I saw him (or her) snag a medium-sized fish, he turned his back so I saw the fishing technique from the rear.

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The flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) at Cane Creek still had a few blossoms; at Sandy Creek and Mason Farm, they offered bright berries. On one tree, they made me think of a movie-inspired alien peeking out of the branches with eyes on stalks.

 

flowering-dogwood-i77a5820-maria-de-bruyn-res       flowering-dogwood-i77a1012maria-de-bruyn-res

Destruction of nature and nature resources results from ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things. – Dalai Lama

Up until the first morning frost this autumn, butterflies were still around, like this sleepy orange (Eurema nicippe); now that we have had several mornings of below-freezing temperatures, the butterflies are mostly gone as are the majority of bees. A scorpion fly (Panorpa) was in evidence at Cane Creek to my surprise.

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In between bird spottings, Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) chittered at me at all three parks. And I was pleased to see some ruby-crowned kinglets since the one that has enjoyed the suet at my house the past three years hasn’t appeared yet.

 

 

 

ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a6241-maria-de-bruyn-res     ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a2574-maria-de-bruyn-res

…until now, Mother Earth has been able to tolerate our sloppy house habits. However, the stage has now been reached where she can no longer accept our behaviour in silence. The problems caused by environmental disasters can be seen as her response to our irresponsible behaviour. She is warning us that there are limits even to her tolerance. –  Dalai Lama

Some of the birds common in my yard are welcome sights at the nature reserves, too.

northern-mockingbird-i77a2312-maria-de-bruyn-res    dark-eyed-junco-i77a0624maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)         Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

carolina-wren-i77a6358-maria-de-bruyn-res   yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a2780maria-de-bruyn-res

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)   Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

northern-flicker-i77a2485-maria-de-bruyn-res          eastern-bluebird-i77a0688maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)               Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

chipping-sparrow-i77a2915-maria-de-bruyn-res    chipping-sparrow-i77a2925-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)

Many of the earth’s habitats, animals, plants, insects, and even microorganisms that we know of as rare or endangered, may not be known at all by future generations. We have the capacity, and the responsibility. We must act before it is too late.    Dalai Lama

And the occasional or rare visitors to my yard are appreciated in the woods and fields, too!

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Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

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Rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

swamp-sparrow-i77a6063-maria-de-bruyn-res      golden-crowned-kinglet-maria-de-bruyn-i77a1711maria-de-bruyn-res

Swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)             Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

I feel that it is extremely important that each individual realize their responsibility for preserving the environment, to make it a part of daily life, create the same attitude in their families, and spread it to the community. – Dalai Lama

hermit-thrush-i77a6034-maria-de-bruyn-res  cedar-waxwing-i77a5945-maria-de-bruyn-res

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

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What a great quote and slogan material:

 

Preserve the environment, make it part of your daily life and spread it to the community!

Winter mornings at Jordan Lake

Mist on the lake I77A5266© Maria de BruynSpending two cold early mornings at Jordan Lake the past couple weeks reinforced my conviction that getting out into nature is a restorative and calming activity. And it doesn’t need to be warm. Although a doctor pronounced me healed after my recent hospitalization and home treatment, it turns out that I’m not completely healthy after all. Starting a new treatment was a bit stressful, but seeing the birds at the lake was a joy.

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Mind you, I’d love to see other wildlife there, but the mammals, reptiles and amphibians have been hiding out or keeping away from areas frequented by people. The fact that it is still hunting season probably makes some of them somewhat shy, too. I did manage to see a fly on one morning though.

fly I77A2979© Maria de Bruyn

The animals do leave behind signs of their presence, however. Tracks in the sand is one give-away that they passed by.

animal tracks I77A2998© Maria de Bruyn res

The beavers (Castor canadensis) leave behind distinctively gnawed tree stumps – and here you can also see one tree that they haven’t quite finished felling yet.

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The shoreline vegetation was decorated with gull feathers in various areas of the lake.

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A sandy track of what I assumed was a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) didn’t produce a bird at that site, but I saw these beauties in flight at two other sites.

 

great blue heron I77A3926© Maria de Bruyn res

great blue heron I77A2558© Maria de Bruyn res

At one area, I spotted a bird that seemed unfamiliar just as it was turning to take off. Friendly birders online identified it as an American pipit (Anthus rubescens), the first time I had seen this species (known as a “lifer” among the birding crowd). The next week I saw a killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) in the same spot but got a better shot.

American pipit I77A2526© Maria de Bruynkilldeer I77A5908© Maria de Bruyn

The killdeer didn’t hang around too long either, but I was able to get a couple of nice flight photos this time.

killdeer I77A5933© Maria de Bruyn res killdeer I77A5931© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow I77A2810© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were foraging in the shoreline woods, while the song sparrow was looking for food among the woody detritus left at lakeside.

 

song sparrow I77A5877© Maria de Bruyn res song sparrow I77A5866© Maria de Bruyn res

In another place, the crows were very loudly making their presence known – it turned out that a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was perched nearby and they were making sure everyone knew the hawk was there.

red-tailed hawk I77A3850© Maria de Bruyn resAmerican crow I77A3878© Maria de Bruyn res

In the trees near the lake, various birds could be seen: the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) was very busy as usual, flying from a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) to other trees in rapid succession.

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A5662© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A6049© Maria de Bruyn

At one site, there were many dark-eyed juncos foraging on the ground and taking pauses in the trees and shrubs around. Juncos are actually a type of sparrow and a group of sparrows is known by several names: a crew, a flutter, a meinie, a quarrel and an ubiquity.

dark-eyed junco I77A2838© Maria de Bruyn dark-eyed junco I77A2379© Maria de Bruyn

The downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were in evidence at various lake sites.

downy woodpecker I77A2504© Maria de Bruyn resRed-bellied woodpecker I77A5384© Maria de Bruyn res

Overhead, the double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew by; they would land and share space with the ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis).

 

double-crested cormorant I77A2731© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A3558© Maria de Bruyn res

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The ring-billed gulls were numerous and occasionally one swooped down to fish not too far from shore.

ring-billed gull I77A5489© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A5497© Maria de Bruyn res

While I was watching, the horned grebes (Odiceps auritus) were more successful in getting meals as they dove into the cold water.

Horned grebe I77A3662© Maria de Bruynhorned grebe I77A3094© Maria de Bruyn

belted kingfisher I77A4014© Maria de BruynA couple times I was very surprised by a bird that suddenly seemed to emerge out of nowhere to fly over my head or just in front of me. That was the case with a beautiful male wood duck (Aix sponsa) and a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).

 

wood duck I77A3719© Maria de Bruyn res wood duck I77A3718© Maria de Bruyn res

bald eagle I77A3030© Maria de BruynAn adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) soared by just as I was approaching an observation platform in one area; the distance and height were considerable but I managed a shot. A Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) flew by a little lower, while a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) sat still for a portrait.

 

Bonaparte's gull I77A3962© Maria de Bruyn

 

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My last avian companions during my latest lake walk were a white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and a lovely hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus).

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I returned home on both occasions a satisfied birder!

 

Corvid courtship – something to crow about

American crow DK7A7017©Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A5544© Maria de Bruyn resAs I was sorting out photos of birds in our recent snow and sleet storm, my attention was drawn by the raucous cawing of one of our neighborhood crows. He had found some apple slices that I had put out with the bird seed and was one happy bird. He spent a lot of time calling, presumably to alert family members to the presence of this desired food source. And his enthusiasm made me decide to post a blog about corvid courtship now, since this late winter/early springtime ritual may be coming sooner than I thought.

Depending on geographic location and weather conditions, some birds begin nest building quite early in the year and American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are among the early mating pairs and nest builders. Last year, a male crow who visited my home discovered and enjoyed both grape jelly and apple slices around early March.American crow DK7A7423©Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A0779© Maria de Bruyn

 

 

 

 

American crow DK7A5569© Maria de Bruyn resHe even tried to add the homemade suet to his diet but he was a bit large to balance well on the small feeder.

Last year, he only had to visit my yard a few times before he was accompanied by his mate. She would sit on a branch or on the ground and caw loudly like him, but she was demanding that he feed her.

American crow DK7A7678©Maria de Bruyn res

He met her demands but was not about to just give up his treats. He would often grab a piece of apple, fly up to a branch near her but then first eat about half of it himself as she continued her raucous cries for food.

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She could have easily flown down to the ground to grab a piece of apple but refused. On a few occasions, she did fly down but just refused to pick up the apple herself, waiting for him to stuff it down her throat.

 

American crow DK7A8031© Maria de Bruyn res

 

He fed her in the trees and on the ground, pushing the food way down her throat.

 

 


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Some preening went on as they perched in the backyard oak tree, too.

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American crow DK7A7504©Maria de Bruyn (2) resAmerican crow DK7A7530©Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

 

 

.I learned that offspring will remain with their parents up to five years. These “helpers” will assist in feeding the female as she incubates eggs and also bring food to their new siblings.

American crow DK7A5642© Maria de Bruyn res

It seems that our warm days in December and January this year may be getting my faithful crow in a romantic mood a bit sooner this year.The crows are loud, especially when three or more show up at a time, but I do enjoy their visits and look forward to watching the corvid courtship again this spring.

American crow DK7A8461©Maria de Bruyn res

Citizen science in my backyard!

Gray-headed catbird DK7A8986© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s been a while since I’ve blogged – not for lack of ideas and photos but due to a dearth of time and energy that was absorbed by multiple troubles with a few cool happenings in between. But now I’m back with some new observations about the beauty and happenings of interest in my natural world and I hope to share some wildlife sightings on a regular basis again.

One activity that I have managed to fit in amid the other goings-on was enrollment in two new (for me) citizen science projects for the Smithsonian Institute. I’m participating in an eMammal project run by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science and in a multi-year observational study of some common birds. The mammal project is time-limited, so I will report on that in about a month’s time.

Northern mockingbird DK7A8859©Maria de BruynThe bird project will involve tracking visits to my yard by banded birds for several years to come. The target species include American robins (Turdus migratorius), Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), gray-headed catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos, at the right), all of which come to my yard. Song sparrows are the 8th target species but I haven’t seen them at my house. However, I discovered that there is a great crested flycatcher in my trees, although I’ve never seen him (or her) either, so who knows if one will come in the future? In any case, the target birds can live from about 6-10 years on average, so I’ll have an ongoing activity for as long as my eyesight remains reasonable!

bird banding IMG_3291© Maria de Bruyn resmist net IMG_3290© Maria de Bruyn

So how does the bird banding proceed? We (the bird bander and I) set up one 12-foot and one 6-foot mist net in two parts of the yard, after the bander laid out her equipment for the banding process. Within a very short time, we caught three birds in the large net! The first was a gray-headed catbird that I recognized (photo above), because he had molted all his tail feathers at once and looks a bit odd with no tail. This bird, whom I have named Corey, has been the most vocal catbird at my feeders and he was extremely vocal about having been caught as well.

gray-headed catbird IMG_3294© Maria de Bruyn bird banding IMG_3295© Maria de Bruyn

After being disentangled – very carefully – from the net, he was put in a bag while the bander got the other two birds out of the net. Corey was measured, weighed, and banded with a combination of aluminum and colored bands. Sex was determined (I now know he is a he!) and then he was let go.

gray-headed catbird IMG_3301© Maria de Bruyn bird banding IMG_3304© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal IMG_3311© Maria de Bruyn resBird 2 was a beautiful male Northern cardinal, who appeared to have good fat reserves. He was a bit vocal and bit the bander to show his displeasure at the treatment he was receiving.

Bird 3 was a male American robin. Sex was determined partly by looking at the cloacal region (outside breeding season, other markers besides brood patches and this area are examined). If a bander is unsure of the sex, this is also marked on the data sheet. The robin was more sedate during handling than his predecessors.

 

American robin IMG_3314 © Maria de Bruyn resAmerican robin IMG_3315© Maria de Bruyn res

The house wrens had been calling loudly during the banding and flitted about in the trees and to the feeders,but they always flew just above the nets and were not caught. A male Carolina wren with a nice eye stripe did not escape.

house wren DK7A4794© Maria de Bruyn Carolina wren IMG_3316© Maria de Bruyn

American crow IMG_3359© Maria de BruynThe chickadees and Northern mockingbird flew about but did not really come too close to the nets. Non-target species were at or near the feeders, too, such as courting bluejays, an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos, right) who came to eat jelly and take some apple to his mate, downy woodpeckers, white-breasted and brown-headed nuthatches, a house finch, Eastern towhees and a male cowbird.

red-bellied woodpecker IMG_3344© Maria de Bruyn resOther non-target birds flew into the large mist net, however, such as a brown thrasher, a tufted titmouse, a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus, right), a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), a female common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas, below) and a common grackle. I’d not seen these birds up so close before, so that was really a nice experience.

Common yellowthroat IMG_3339© Maria de Bruyn res

 

bird banding IMG_3340© Maria de Bruyn resTo get more target species, a loudspeaker that played bird calls and some model birds were placed in the grass by the largest net. Eventually, two more catbirds were caught – with other catbirds in a nearby tree puffing themselves up to show their shared distress. These were the first catbirds banded for the project so far, so that was a nice way to end the exercise.

Cope's tree frog IMG_3293© Maria de Bruyn resA tour of the yard to see if there were any nests that could be followed for the Nest Watch project revealed a couple wren nests in boxes that were built up so high it was not possible to see if they had eggs in them. The bluebirds’ nest has five eggs that I will follow through fledging (hopefully); a catbird nest is too high up for me to see how many eggs she is sitting on but I will watch for her fledglings, too. And a Cope’s tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) had taken up residence in the nest box that the downy woodpecker uses to rest at night. The wrens had begun building a nest in that box last night and the frog was gone this afternoon.

The banding took place yesterday in the morning and in the afternoon, the banded birds had not returned. I wonder how long it will take most of these individuals to come again. Corey already returned this afternoon, instantly recognizable not only because of his very short tail feathers growing in but because of the red and silver bands on his little legs. I was so glad to see he was none the worse for wear!