Avian generations in the making – part 2B: nesting in nature

My last blog looked at birds’ nests in man-made structures and there are plenty of birds who take the opportunity to use such sites. Most birds, however, make their homes out in nature – in shrubs, trees and on the ground. This is a bit of a long blog but I want to share views of different species at work.

There are different types of nests; a few types that we see in North Carolina include:

  • Cavity nests – holes in trees, made by the parents themselves or adopted as a home when birds like the cavities made by others
  • Simple scrapes – these are shallow depressions scratched out on the ground and they may be lined with materials or left to look like the rest of the surrounding ground
  • Cup-shaped nests – these structures are like small bowls and may be lined with materials like those used in nest box nests. They can be made of varied materials – swallows use mud while American robins and other birds use plant materials.
  • Platform nests – these nests are usually quite large and comprise large twigs and small branches
  • Plate nests are a bit similar to platform nests but much smaller and less organized; they may consist simply of a few twigs arranged in a shallow bundle
  • Pendant nests hang from branches.

When birds look for a cavity site, they may seek out a new spot on a tree trunk or investigate already existing cavities. These Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) at Sandy Creek Park were examining one particular hole with interest, but a downy woodpecker was interested as well so there was some rivalry. The female bluebird chose to just sit on a nearby branch while her mate looked at the hole numerous times trying to make a decision.

    

Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) excavate larger cavities in tree trunks to raise their broods. They may visit various trees before deciding on a spot.

      

Pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) may use the same holes year after year. They make holes for resting as well as for nesting and often include a “back door” so they can make a quick escape if a snake shows up.

          

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), like this one at Jordan Lake, can be very industrious in excavating their nest cavities. You can watch them pecking away at the wood of a tree trunk or branch, scattering wood shavings and removing bigger bits of softened wood in their beaks to achieve a hole of the right depth for their babies. (See a short video of one at work here.)

   

I also saw nuthatches making nests on the edges of a farm and near the NC Botanical Garden. The pair working on a nest at the Garden were doing this with a great horned owl on a branch overhead, as well as a red-tailed hawk and crows who were raising a racket. Their presence didn’t bother the little birds; these nuthatches also appeared to have help from a previous year’s youngster willing to help the parents raise the new siblings.

 

 

    

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) also dig out small holes in trees and snags.

      

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) use scrape nests which may look exactly like the surrounding area; their eggs then blend in really well with the environment and can be difficult to see.

When I first saw this nest suspended from a tree near a bridge, I had no idea which bird had built it. A birding friend had fortunately seen the parent bird fly to the nest – it belonged to a Northern parula like the one shown below (Setophaga americana).

    

I was lucky to see a female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) collecting nice soft lining materials for its nest this past spring.

         

A red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was doing the same with cattails – an obviously appropriate source for bird bedding!

       

Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) and Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) make fairly shallow, twiggy nests (“plate nests”). It makes you wonder if eggs ever roll out of them through cracks in the loose, low walls.

   

Many birds make cup nests and spend a good amount of time collecting the materials to produce them. Here you see American robins (Turdus migratorius) gathering grasses – they tend to fill their mouths as much as possible before flying off to the nest-in-the making.

      

Red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) will also attempt to get several pieces of bark into their beaks before flying back to the home site. The photos here are dark as the bird was deep in shrubs where little light was penetrating.

        

Blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) weave what looks like a cross between a pendant nest and a cup nest; they also add man-made materials such as rags, cellophane, newspaper and bits of plastic.

    

Great blue herons and ospreys are builders of platform nests.The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) carry large twigs and branches to furnish a nest. At Sandy Creek Park they have been using the same tree-top platforms for several years now.

     

Last year, I saw this osprey pair (Pandion haliaetus) build their first nest from scratch; they weren’t enthusiastic about me being in the vicinity and would perch or fly overhead to give me “the evil eye” – sometimes calling to one another to sound the alert that they had spotted me down below.

 

 

This year, they were busy refurbishing the nest – these birds with longer-term mates may use the same nest year after year. Again, they would stop their work to stare me down.

 

The Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) makes a cup nest that is well-hidden among the leaves of the tree spot it chooses. A friend saw the pair constructing this nest and it was done by the time I visited. It seemed quite a tight fit for mom to sit in while brooding her eggs.

The bird whom I enjoy seeing most during nest construction is the blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). These little birds are very active and often don’t sit still for long as they feed in shrubs and trees. When they are busy making a new home though, they take their time to do a good job. First, they locate good locations for the materials they use – leaves, spider web to hold the leaves together and pieces of lichen to cover the outside walls.

      

They affix the lichen carefully to make a really beautiful, compact and elegant little cup. The female then sits in it and moves her body to ensure it gets the right shape and dimensions for her upcoming brooding.

     

The male and female both work hard on the nests and this year I got to see three pairs at work. In two cases, it was lucky I saw them flying to and fro because their nests blended in really well with the tree.

Unlike the cavity and platform nesters, the cup and pendant nesters usually need to build a new nest each year. At the end of the summer, for example, the blue-gray gnatcatcher nest had already deteriorated considerably with the rain and wind, even though it was a fairly calm and dry season.

 

Once the nest is complete, the avian parents brood and feed their babies before fledging and this will be the third part of this series. For now, I leave you with the male and female ospreys as they watch the birdwatcher….

  

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!)

yellow-bellied-slider-i77a2954-maria-de-bruyn-res

flower-77a1303maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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

 

 

blanket-flower-i77a1309maria-de-bruyn-res  henbit-i77a0825maria-de-bruyn-res

Blanket flower (Gaillardia)                           Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

leaf-bird-i77a2906-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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”.

 

 

 

leaves-i77a2893-maria-de-bruyn-res   leaves-i77a2882-maria-de-bruyn-res

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)

killdeer-i77a0916maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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.

 

 

killdeer-i77a0913maria-de-bruyn-res  killdeer-i77a0911maria-de-bruyn-res

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

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a2988maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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

american-crow-i77a6327-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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.

 

 

great-blue-heron-i77a1936maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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.

great-blue-heron-i77a1438maria-de-bruyn-2-res  great-blue-heron-i77a1440maria-de-bruyn-res

flowering-dogwood-i77a0882maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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.

sleepy-orange-i77a1003maria-de-bruyn-res  scorpion-fly-i77a0991maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a2505-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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!

field-sparrow-i77a1587maria-de-bruyn-res      field-sparrow-i77a1634maria-de-bruyn-res

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

rusty-blackbird-i77a3199-maria-de-bruyn-res rusty-blackbird-i77a3110maria-de-bruyn-res

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)

white-throated-sparrow-i77a1564maria-de-bruyn-res

 

What a great quote and slogan material:

 

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

Birds and blooms at Sandy Creek Park – more of the “good ones”

moon I77A9993© Maria de Bruyn res

Birds are a favorite photographic subject of mine, even though catching them in late spring and summer is challenging when the lush foliage offers them many places to hide. Their songs and calls and warbles tell me that they are there, but often I need to wait quite a while until I finally catch a flutter of movement out of the corner of my eye to locate them.

 

white-eyed vireo I77A0007©Maria de Bruyn

One early morning, when the moon was still in the sky, I was fortunate enough to see a lot of fluttering in trees near the park’s parking lot – and I discovered an immature white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus) with a parent who looked as if she or he was really practicing forbearance.

white-eyed vireo I77A0010©Maria de Bruyn      white-eyed vireo I77A0006©Maria de Bruyn

Carolina wren I77A0188©Maria de Bruyn res

Nearby, a Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) was singing loudly; these little avians have an outsized voice so that you can hardly miss them even when they are hidden behind leaves.

A handsome male goldfinch (Spinus tristis) was in a field, while a female was visiting the coneflowers (Echinacea), of which there were various species in the cultivated butterfly garden.

 

 

American goldfinch I77A0382©Maria de Bruyn res American goldfinch I77A0177©Maria de Bruyn res

coneflower I77A7325© Maria de Bruyn res      coneflower I77A6365© Maria de Bruyn res   coneflower I77A6250© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A6188© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Other birds were busy finding insect meals, like the male, female and immature Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

 

 

 

 

 

Eastern bluebird I77A6022© Maria de Bruyn res    Eastern bluebird I77A5558© Maria de Bruyn res

Common grackle I77A6377© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) scored a meal, while the pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) and blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) were busy in the trees searching for caterpillars and insects.

Other birds (and mammals, I think) had been getting crayfish from the ponds but I guess there were so many that they only ate the tastiest parts.

Pine warbler I77A5605© Maria de Bruyn res   Pine warbler I77A5598© Maria de Bruyn

 

blue-gray gnatcatcher I77A0302©Maria de Bruyn res     crayfish IMG_4926©Maria de Bruyn res

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were looking for earthworms on the ground, and the song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) alternated between the ground and shrubs in their search for food.

American robin IMG_0550© Maria de Bruyn res     song sparrow I77A6195© Maria de Bruyn

The male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were calling and flying from shrub to shrub, showing off their handsome black plumage with a red highlight.

red-winged blackbird I77A6090© Maria de Bruyn res  red-winged blackbird I77A6126© Maria de Bruyn res

Over at a nearby pond, the Northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) were swooping over the water and then sharing space on a snag; meanwhile, a mother wood duck (Aix sponsa) led her brood along the shoreline.

rough-winged swallow I77A0234© Maria de Bruyn res    wood duck I77A7225© Maria de Bruyn

In a tree beside another pond, the immature great blue herons (Ardea herodias) were still at their nest at the start of June; later in the month, they were no longer hanging out there.

great blue heron IMG_0430© Maria de Bruyn res   great blue heron IMG_0402© Maria de Bruyn res

milkweed I77A0079©Maria de Bruyn res

 

Botanists can have a great time at Sandy Creek, too. The milkweed plants in the butterfly garden attract both butterflies and bees.

Carolina horsenettles (Solanum carolinense) are common but pretty little plants, while the orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) enjoys a good reputation as having stem juice that relieves the pain caused by poison ivy for many people.

Carolina horsenettle I77A5581© Maria de Bruyn res      orange jewelweed I77A0511© Maria de Bruyn res

The fairywand (Chamaelirium luteum) grows profusely on the edges of Sandy Creek ponds and the swamp rose (Rosa palustris) sprouts near them as well.

fairywand I77A7293© Maria de Bruyn res      swamp rose Rosa palustris I77A5621© Maria de Bruyn res

Japanese honeysuckle I77A5711© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), an invasive plant, attracts pollinators but so does the more vibrant and native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens L.).

 

 

 

coral honeysuckle I77A0159© Maria de Bruyn res      coral honeysuckle I77A0127© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

In the fields, you can see lovely brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and coreopsis.

Brown-eyed Susan IMG_0504© Maria de Bruyn res  brown-eyed Susan IMG_0497© Maria de Bruyn res

 

coreopsis flower IMG_0494© Maria de Bruyn res   coreopsis flower IMG_0486© Maria de Bruyn res

Stoke's aster I77A6353© Maria de Bruyn resThe cultivated garden in the park gets plenty of color from the Stoke’s asters (Stokesia laevis) and red bee balm (Monarda didyma), which is a real magnet for hummingbirds. I recently bought a couple for my home garden and was rewarded with seeing the hummers visit them within 2 days.

 

 

red bee balm I77A7307© Maria de Bruyn res    red bee balm I77A6390© Maria de Bruyn res

What makes my walks so interesting is discovering new species. A native grass (Bromus) was lovely; helpful facebook group members gave me suggestions for possible species but we couldn’t narrow it down. The group also helped me identify a plant that I hadn’t seen before, a Germander (Teucrium canadense).

grass Bromus IMG_4811© Maria de Bruyn res   Germander Teucrium canadense I77A0544© Maria de Bruyn res

I managed to find an ID myself for a common flower that seems to grow all over the place – the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis). It is considered an invasive plant and is on the watch list for North Carolina, but I have to say that I find it quite attractive. Each flower blooms for only one day and to me they look like little faces and make me smile. And so I continue learning as each new walk invariably ends up teaching me something new. Enjoy your day!

Asiatic dayflower Commelina communis I77A0667© Maria de Bruyn res    Asiatic dayflower I77A0677© Maria de Bruyn res

Water-logged and soggy birds

Carolina wren I77A2794© Maria de Bruyn resMy original intent was to write only one more blog this year, but our current weather has induced me to write two (the other will follow on the last day of 2015). During the past week, our region has had more than our “fair share” of rain. Fortunately, the house is not downstream or downhill of flowing water so that flooding is not a concern (and having helped my parents when their home was flooded with about 5 feet of water, I know that is a real pain to say the least). But the yard is so water-logged that small pools of water are scattered in many places and the ground cover squishes when we walk on it. Combined with very high temperatures for this time of year, it seems that El Niño is really making itself known – and the birds like this Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) must be getting tired of being water-logged as well!

Sayings such as “like water off a duck’s back” imply that birds don’t really get bothered by water pouring from the heavens, but that is probably only partly true. During recent downpours, I saw – through the back porch screen – a Carolina wren and Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) hanging out on a downspout under the house eaves, while a brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) clung to the brick wall under the roof overhang to get out of the rain.

brown-headed nuthatch I77A0090© Maria de BruynNorthern cardinal I77A0101© Maria de Bruyn res

Birds that regularly dive underwater do have denser feathers, which helps prevent water from penetrating through to their skin, as is the case for this Canada goose (Branta canadensis).

Canada goose I77A1169© Maria de Bruyn res

But birds’ feathers are not inherently waterproof – when we see water droplets beading on their backs and tails, as in the case of this brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), it’s because the birds have made them water-resistant to some extent.

Blue jay I77A3141© Maria de Bruyn resbrown thrasher I77A9881© Maria de Bruyn res

This happens in two ways. On the one hand, birds such as pigeons, herons, hawks and owls have special feathers called “powder downs” or “pulviplumes”, which are covered in a dusty powder containing keratin that disintegrates and becomes a waterproof coating. They spread the powder to other feathers while preening.

Great blue heron I77A1220© Maria de Bruyn res

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)

brown-headed nuthatch I77A0090© Maria de Bruyn resOther birds have a uropygial (preen) gland located at the base of their tails. It produces a substance containing oil and wax that the birds spread on their feathers when they groom. Often, they will rub their head against the preen gland and then spread the oil by rubbing their head against other feathers, a behavior that this female red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) seemed to be doing when she was grooming. The wax then helps make the feathers more flexible and water-resistant, which explains the water beads we see on their feathers when it rains.

dark-eyed junco I77A4085© Maria de Bruyndark-eyed junco I77A9650© Maria de Bruyn res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

Eastern towhee I77A9682© Maria de Bruyn res Pine warbler I77A9921© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

     Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

It may be that some birds are less successful in spreading the powder and wax to their head feathers, or they rub all the oil or powder off their heads onto other feathers. This may account for the “bad hair day” look some of them get when it rains for hours on end. These spiky “Mohawks” often appear in Northern cardinals and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

Northern cardinal I77A9734© Maria de Bruyn res Northern cardinal I77A9870© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A9717© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird I77A9710© Maria de Bruyn res

Other birds seem to especially get soggy feathers on the crowns of their heads just above their eyes. This may be why we see so many of them shaking their heads vigorously to get rid of the dampness on their pates.

Pine warbler I77A9942© Maria de Bruyn res White-throated sparrow I77A2980© Maria de Bruyn res

Pine warbler                                              White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Red-bellied woodpecker I77A9724© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

And some birds just get an overall scruffy look when it rains hard, like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).

 

 

 

 

Eastern bluebird I77A0155© Maria de Bruyn resThe water-logged look does seem to give some birds an angry or disgruntled appearance; I can certainly sympathize since endless days of rain – even in warmer temperatures – is one of my least favorite types of weather. It seems that overcast days and showers are continuing in our local forecast for some time to come. So the poor birds have to put up with the wet weather a while longer. We’ll all appreciate the sunlight when it comes back in force – hopefully soon!

Communal nesting – the rookery at Sandy Creek Park

great blue heron DK7A5496© Maria de BruynUnlike Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and other songbirds, great blue herons (Ardea herodias) like to build their nests near one another, forming what is called a rookery, or colony of nests. The nests are often seen in the tops of tall trees and comprise large twigs and branches that surround grass, leaves and moss. As many as 135 nests have been counted in a rookery, but the one at Sandy Creek Park that I visited this spring had three nests.

The herons return to the nests for several years running. Each year, the males re-furbish the nests in order to attract a mate.

great blue heron DK7A7297©Maria de Bruyn great blue heron DK7A7367©Maria de Bruyn

You can see the nests well with binoculars from a walking path, but as I have no binoculars and rely on my camera’s zoom lens, I slogged through forest and marshy terrain on numerous occasions to get close to the pond that had their rookery pine trees on the other side. They were still a bit out of range for my lens, but occasionally I managed to get a half-way decent shot, which encouraged me to return often to follow the nestlings’ progress.I followed them from 8 March through 26 June.

great blue heron DK7A5924© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3689© Maria de BruynThe top nest in an open-to-the sky tree appeared to have four babies, while the nest below it had three.

A nest in a tree to the right, which had much more dense foliage, seemed to be occupied by only one or two babies.

great blue heron DK7A6005© Maria de Bruyn

There were always 1-4 adults around, including both parents on the nest and “guards”, who took up posts atop nearby trees to watch the nearby skies. This is one reason for the rookeries; the herons want to ensure that there are adults around to protect the nestlings from predators, which include raccoons, crows and hawks, such as this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) that was hanging around the nests one day.

red-shouldered hawk DK7A7354© Maria de Bruyn red-shouldered hawk DK7A7371© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A6601© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3495© Maria de Bruyngreat blue heron DK7A8238© Maria de Bruyn resThe parents feed their young by regurgitating food and the young birds get excited when a parent returns after being away for a time.

The nestlings make quite a lot of noise squawking loudly while they jostle to get first in line for the meal.

great blue heron DK7A3743© Maria de BruynThe young herons appear to “argue” with one another with loud calls and it seemed that they “jousted” with one another using their beaks.

great blue heron DK7A3735© Maria de Bruyn

Weaker chicks may miss out on getting enough food and can die of starvation, but that didn’t happen at the Sandy Creek rookery. Some chicks were obviously larger and stronger than others, but even the smallest fledglings survived.As they grew, the babies began standing tall and walking around the nest.

great blue heron DK7A8283© Maria de Bruyn Great blue heron DK7A3638© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A9348© Maria de BruynWhen they were close to fledging, they stood near the edge of the nest and practiced spreading and flapping their wings. Sixty days after hatching (much longer than smaller birds!), the young herons were ready to fly and began taking short flights to nearby trees, before venturing out on farther trips. great blue heron DK7A8960©Maria de BruynThe young ones will not breed until they are two years old.

Watching events unfold at the rookery was a new past-time for me this year and likely one I’ll repeat in the future. If you have time and the opportunity, I’d recommend the experience!