My nature muse and a delightful experience

Dear unseen spirit,

You are a muse for me who permeates the air and leaves and water and earth that form the sphere in which I feel so at home, at rest yet invigorated, excited, awed, happy and amazed in turn and sometimes simultaneously, in a welter of positive emotion and feeling.

Yesterday, you brought me one of those moments. A smallish, perhaps teenaged, painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), with a smooth ebony carapace with some iron oxide-like highlights, was busy laying her eggs. My friend Lucretia and I stopped to watch.

Lucretia had discovered her while walking a fence line near a lake cove, sticking to that border of mostly bare dirt except for some leaves and twigs so she could avoid the longish grass that could very well be harboring ticks and chiggers – the nemesis bugs for birders and naturalists!

 

Ms Turtle was not quite vertical but leaning like the Tower of Pisa with her bottom in a hole she’d dug and her red-striped front legs anchoring her above. She was using her back legs and toes to move aside dampened clay earth, sometimes moving her body side to side to widen the depression. We wondered how much she’d had to urinate to get the dry ground to a nice malleable consistency; it turns out that painted turtles can store water in their urinary bladder, which helps with buoyancy in the water – and nest digging on land.

When we first stopped, she withdrew her head into her shell and stayed motionless but not for longer than 45 seconds or so. Her natural impulse for self-protection was weaker than her need to procreate, so she resumed moving small mounds of earth.

After some 15 minutes or so, we moved on along the cove, Lucretia noting birds and me looking for dragonflies to photograph. Spring was still in the air with one female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) being chased by 3 to 5 males in an aerial ballet as they sought to be the one who could grab her head and become her temporary mate.

One pair of conjoined dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface while others hovered over water plants or rested on shoreline foliage for a few minutes.

Spangled skimmer (Libellula cyanea)

  

Eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera)   Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Thoughts of Ms Turtle came back to me and I cut my insect investigations short to go back around the cove to her birthing site. Lucretia was already there and waved me over – she’d just seen Ms Turtle expel two white eggs, which I saw below her tail as she resumed her back-leg maneuvering of damp earth. She was now covering the eggs and perhaps that is also what she had been doing when we arrived. Painted turtles lay from 1 to 11 eggs and we wondered if she had already laid some and was covering them in layers.

At any rate, she was now obviously done with placing her progeny in the nest and was filling in the hole. She deliberately and meticulously grasped balls of soft earth and maneuvered them over the eggs. Her instincts were good and she apparently was doing this all by feel as she couldn’t see what she was doing. Her back legs unerringly found the next clump to move into position and she was quite thorough in making sure it was placed and smoothed over in just the right spot.

The process was slow but careful and as she gathered in the mud, her body began going more and more horizontal – a really noticeable change from when we first saw her more or less standing on end to deposit her clutch.

Ms Turtle was no longer bothered by our presence at all – nothing was going to stop her completing the process, although she occasionally did pause for a moment or two. She’d been at this for at least 70 minutes or so – or perhaps longer if she’d already laid some eggs before our arrival. Lucretia commented on what a hard worker she was!

When Ms Turtle was finally entirely horizontal, resting on the packed earth that was even with its surroundings, she took one more precaution to prevent predators (e.g., snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, raccoons) from finding her developing offspring. She used her back legs to draw in leaves and twigs to top off the dirt over the nesting site so that it looked exactly like the surroundings!

This, too, was done deliberately and carefully and by feel – never once did she turn around to look at what she’d done. In fact, when she was finished, she set off at an angle to trundle rapidly through the grass to the lake, never casting an eye on the covered nest.

 

We vowed to investigate egg incubation times (on average, 72 days, making 19 August a possible hatching day) and Lucretia tied a paper towel on the fence in front of the site so we could re-locate it. I also tied some weeds into the mesh of the fence.

 

In the meantime, Ms Turtle was making good time to the lake and we saw her tip over the shoreline edge, only to end up on her back. Within 10 seconds, she’d righted herself and plopped into the water, briefly floating and then submerging.

 

 

  

   

We spoke about her wonderful work – even if instinctual, it was amazing to watch and we felt privileged to have borne witness to it. Suddenly, not far off-shore, up popped Ms Turtle; she floated at the water’s surface enjoying a well-earned rest after her double labors (birthing and excavation/reconstruction). Her carapace glistened and she was a beauty to see and admire.

It would be super to be able to see her hatchlings emerge in August. I don’t know if we will be so lucky but recalling their mother’s construction of a nursery will be a great nature memory for sure. And who knows what new event you, my nature muse, will bring along in the meantime – when I arrived home, two of the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) had hatched!

Mother Nature, you always delight and/or edify to be sure!

Many thanks! Maria

                                 

New bird generations emerge in my yard!

This spring and summer, I’ve had the pleasure of watching various species of birds in my yard care for new offspring until they have fledged (left the nest). My most recent observations came today as I watched three hatchlings jump bravely into their wide new world. This blog will introduce you to some of my new neighbors; two blogs to follow will go back in time to spring and early summer to describe some nesting I witnessed in local parks and reserves.

gray catbird IMG_3888© Maria de BruynA dense privet tree next to my carport offered a pair of gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) space to construct a well-hidden nest. I discovered it was there because the parents suddenly began yelling at me loudly whenever I left the carport to walk into the yard and then a bird bander who was visiting managed to locate the nest, which was about 8 feet up so I couldn’t see the eggs in it.

I kept an eye on the shrub and saw the parents were flying in with insects and emerging empty-beaked, so I knew the eggs had hatched. One day, I ventured close and peered through the privet branches and saw a couple little heads sticking up above the nest.

gray catbird IMG_3933© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird IMG_3903© Maria de Bruyn res

A short time later, the baby birds hopped out of the nest and they stayed in the large shrub for several days as their parents continued bringing them a variety of insects.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, the parents were good providers, sometimes bringing more than one type of insect home in their beaks.

gray catbird DK7A2939© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird DK7A2937© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird IMG_3881© Maria de Bruyn resA pair of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) laid five eggs in a nest box in my front yard and I was able to record when all the eggs had been laid. Information provided online about time to hatching (12 to 14 days) alerted me as to when I might see newborns.  Only four of the five eggs hatched; the fifth one was broken. I also checked how long it takes for hatchlings to develop until they leave the nest – that can take 16-21 days but usually 17-18 days.

Eastern bluebird DK7A3842© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The bluebird parents were diligent about bringing food, mostly caterpillars and insects but supplemented by wild raspberries and dried meal worms that I had made available. It turned out this brood wasn’t too interested in the meal worms; I found a layer of them in the nest when the babies fledged.

 

Eastern bluebird DK7A3411© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird DK7A8706© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Eastern bluebird DK7A3210© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird DK7A8685© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A3137© Maria de Bruyn RESClose to fledging, the parents began showing protective behavior – chasing squirrels out of the large tree in front of the nest box, flying at other birds that came too close, keeping an eye on me as I sat near the box. Mama and papa removed fecal sacs frequently, flying off with them to a considerable distance from the nest. Only once did I see a parent actually swallow the fecal sac.

 

Eastern bluebird DK7A3081© Maria de Bruyn resMama investigated something odd at the edge of the box one day, flying down to look closely at the gap between the box wall and door. When I looked, I didn’t see anything. She also would occasionally hover in front of the nest box opening, as if she was demonstrating to the babies what they had to do.

Eastern bluebird DK7A3149© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern bluebird DK7A3174© Maria de Bruyn res

I was lucky enough to see all four babies leave the nest. Two of them were definitely stronger than the other two, who couldn’t fly as well and who didn’t seem to have feathers that were so well developed. When I moved close to take photos, the cautious parents dive-bombed me and the young eventually moved across the street. I never saw the young ones at my feeders.

Eastern bluebird DK7A4306© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird DK7A4281© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A4489© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern bluebird DK7A4386© Maria de Bruyn res

These past few weeks, some bluebirds raised a second brood in my backyard. This nest had some history. First, three eggs were laid, with a pair of bluebirds visiting the nest occasionally. Unfortunately, one day I saw a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) swoop in and it looked like the raptor had caught one of the bluebirds. In any event, the eggs were abandoned. After a few weeks, I had just decided to clean out the nest with eggs when I suddenly saw another pair of bluebirds building a new nest on top of the old one. They, Eastern bluebird DK7A7145© Maria de Bruyn restoo, laid three eggs.

Using the guidance given to me by the Smithsonian Institute’s Backyard Nestwatch Project, I checked the box every three days until the eggs hatched and then every two days to check on the nestlings’ well-being.

I was surprised that the mother was not sitting on the eggs much of the time, but the local Audubon chapter president told me that when the weather is very hot, the parent will not brood because it could become too warm inside the box.

The parents were quite diligent in bringing food to the hungry babies. They occasionally visited my mealworm and suet feeders but mostly just to feed themselves. They appeared to be feeding their babies an exclusive diet of caterpillars and insects and a little bit of suet – no mealworms though.

Eastern bluebird DK7A7038© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird DK7A8265© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A8265© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern bluebird DK7A8041© Maria de Bruyn res

They were busy removing fecal sacs as well and I discovered that the baby birds actually present the sac to the parent by sticking up their behinds so the parent can pull out the sac. That made for a couple unusual photos!

Eastern bluebird DK7A8089© Maria de BruynEastern bluebird DK7A8106© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Eastern bluebird DK7A8351© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A8316© Maria de Bruyn resI had calculated that today or tomorrow would likely be fledging day so after a doctor’s appointment and grocery shopping, I settled into a canopy chair to observe the box. The parents were very busy bringing food but also taking time to sit in the crepe myrtle tree across from the box to call to their little ones. The nestlings were now sticking their heads out of the box so I figured that fledging was imminent.

As I watched the parents and nestlings for an hour, I also looked around at the other bird activity in the yard. Suddenly, I saw an immature red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) take interest in the nestlings and it swooped over to the box. I feared for the little ones but one of the parents descended on the larger bird to drive it away from their temporary home.

red-bellied woodpecker DK7A8468© Maria de Bruyn resred-bellied woodpecker DK7A8472© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A8532© Maria de BruynAfter a while, I thought bird No. 1 was going to jump but at the last minute s/he crawled back inside. I was occasionally turning my head to observe other birds at feeders and just as I turned my head again, action erupted.

Eastern bluebird DK7A8660© Maria de Bruyn resI was warned because the bluebird parents swooped down from the crepe myrtle tree to fly straight at my head under the canopy of my chair – they were not taking any chances! It turned out that bird No. 1 had flown by me and landed on the side of my screened-in porch, which was where I had been looking.

Eastern bluebird DK7A8714© Maria de BruynEastern bluebird DK7A8715© Maria de Bruyn res

The parents continued to fly at me, perhaps 6 or 7 times coming very close to my face, so I went on the porch so that they could calm down. Then they began chasing other birds as their young one had flown from the porch to a tree. While they were occupied, I went back to the chair and was able to see babies 2 and 3 jump from the nest box.

Eastern bluebird DK7A8864© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird DK7A8865© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A9056© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird DK7A9058© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A9059© Maria de Bruyn res

It was a partly cloudy, partly sunny morning for the fledging today and then a few hours after the bluebird young flew, the rain began. There has only been a little thunder and no lightning so perhaps this will just be a nice steady rain that we can use and not severe weather. I do feel a little sorry for the new members of our local bluebird society, however, as they have to face getting sodden on their first day outdoors. The parents are visiting the mealworm feeder now; I hope I get to see the babies at my feeders the coming days. In any event, they made my morning very enjoyable indeed and I have a third nesting report to add to Backyard Nestwatch!

 

P.S. I have higher-resolution photos for sale as prints or photo cards; let me know if you ever want a particular one!

 

Motherhood in the wild

yellow-bellied slider IMG_3703© Maria de Bruyn res After watching the baby herons today at the Sandy Creek Park rookery (blog coming on that!!), I walked down a path taking photos of plants and flowers, ending in a spot where I wanted to check on what had happened to a moth cocoon. To my surprise and delight, when I glanced to the side, I saw a yellow-bellied slider (I think, Trachemys scripta scripta) in the process of laying her eggs.

yellow-bellied slider MG_3704© Maria de BruynI didn’t want to get too close but was really curious as well since this would be the first time I had seen a turtle laying eggs. So I inched a bit closer and witnessed her last egg dropping down into the nest. Happy turtle and happy me!

She immediately began covering it by pushing dampened earth over it with her hind legs and feet.

yellow-bellied slider IMG_3706© Maria de Bruyn res yellow-bellied slider DK7A4271© Maria de BruynMother turtle kept an eye on me during this process, pausing if I moved too close.

yellow-bellied slider DK7A4273© Maria de Bruyn resAt one point, I continued along the path to give her a little privacy and came upon another turtle – perhaps also looking for a nesting site?

Yellow-bellied slider DK7A4294© Maria de Bruyn res yellow-bellied slider DK7A4296© Maria de Bruyn res

This turtle’s eggs will now incubate for a period of two to three months. When the babies hatch, they will likely stay near the nest during the winter, eating insects, spiders, carrion – an almost exclusively carnivorous diet. If left alone by humans and predators, they can grow up to live as long as 30 years in the wild.yellow-bellied slider DK7A4270© Maria de Bruyn res yellow-bellied slider DK7A4439© Maria de Bruyn res

yellow-belllied slider DK7A4286© Maria de Bruyn resI left mom to the task of covering the site and returned about 20 minutes later. She was nowhere in sight and it was only because I had seen her on the nest that I could tell where she had laid the eggs. I hope I remember the site so that I can return in a couple months and perhaps be lucky enough to see the babies emerge.

 

 

The squatter family: those cute – and seemingly precocious – little Carolina chickadees!

Carolina chickadee IMG_3138©Maria de BruynresI have two bird boxes in my yard designed to attract brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla). While I do have these birds at my feeders, they have not deigned to create nests in the boxes; one is still empty and the other was occupied by a family of squatters – darling little Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis). I don’t know if this pair had had kids together before, but sometimes these birds retain their bonds for several years.

In addition to the nuthatch boxes, I have five bluebird boxes and cCarolina chickadee eggs IMG_4429©Maria de Bruynhickadees had begun nests in two others. It is not uncommon for them to begin a couple nests and then finally settle on one. On 12 April, I discovered that Mom had laid five white with brown-specked eggs in a nice soft nest made of moss, soft grasses and some down, even using a bit of pillow stuffing I had left out for interested nest-builders.

Ten days later, 22 April, I opened the box to see if everything was ok and surprised her sitting on the nest. (I had tapped on the box beforehand in case she would want to leave for a bit; didn’t happen!) She gazed at me in alarm and then began dipping her head and beating her wings against the nest; this is called a snake display to warn off predators.

Carolina chickadee IMG_4623©Maria de BruynCarolina chickadee IMG_4624©Maria de Bruynres

Carolina chickadee nestlings IMG_4680©Maria de BruynresTwo days later, I opened the box and discovered the eggs had hatched – I think she had been brooding them two days earlier since the babies didn’t seem quite as naked as I expected. That would mean they hatched after only about 10 days (and the average seems to be 12-15 days of incubation according to websites).

Both parents take on feeding their offspring. In warmer weather, they search for insects among foliage and under tree bark, sometimes hanging upside down to get a meal. This pair also visited the nearby feeders, obviously intent on teaching their young that suet, dried meal worms and seeds are also good to eat.

carolina chickadee IMG_6507©Maria de BruynCarolina chickadee IMG_3021©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6378©Maria de Bruyn

Carolina chickadee IMG_3129©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6702©Maria de Bruyn

Like the nuthatches and robins, the parents were also fastidious about cleaning the nest; and these almost full-grown young seemed to be pooping a lot!

Carolina chickadee IMG_6420©Maria de BruynCarolina chickadee IMG_6430©Maria de Bruynrescarolina chickadee IMG_6380©Maria de Bruyn
The young usually fledge about 16-19 days after hatching. If these birdlets had hatched on 22 April, I figured they would be ready to leave the nest around 7 May. Despite being sick with an infection that was keeping me mostly supine, I couldn’t let the opportunity for observation go by. So on the 5th of May, I roused myself for a sit-down in the yard in the early afternoon. I first waited until the parents had both left and carefully lifted the bird box door to see a bright-eyed, pretty much full-grown chick staring at me. S/he scooted back and it looked like there were only two others – so the other two siblings had already fledged. This did seem to be a very precocious family!

Carolina chickadee nestling IMG_4820©Maria de BruynresCarolina chickadee nestling IMG_4824©Maria de Bruynres

Carolina chickadee IMG_6407©Maria de BruynThis might be one of the chicks that fledged earlier. When a fledgling is begging for food, it quivers its wings rapidly. Females also do this before the young leave the nest when they want the male to feed them.

Because I was feeling fairly ill, I had to stop watching the parents go to and fro after a couple hours. On 6 May, I ventured outside in the early afternoon, hoping against hope that I might just be lucky enough to see the last chicks fledge. And I did!

Each chickcarolina chickadee IMG_6817©Maria de Bruyn spent time looking out of the box before venturing out. One took a flying leap and swerved up into a tree.

 

 

 

No. 2 spent some time calling (the parents were still coming in regularly with meals!), then launched itself and landed on some nearby branches.

carolina chickadee IMG_6810©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6831©Maria de Bruyn

No. 3 spent time flexing its wings before venturing forth.

carolina chickadee IMG_6894©Maria de Bruyncarolina chickadee IMG_6939©Maria de Bruyn
I did check the box to be sure they were all out and then watched as the parents called to them as they flitted about the various trees behind the nest box. If I’d felt better, I would have stayed to observe a bit longer but I was pretty satisfied with having seen the fledging!.

carolina chickadee IMG_6951©Maria de Bruynres

The next morning, a pair of Carolina wrens was already bringing in twigs and placing them atop the chicarolina chickadee IMG_7357©Maria de Bruynresckadees’ nest (after removing some remaining fecal matter). One chickadee ventured back to peer into the box but the wren pair loudly chased the original owner away.

 

 

 

All in all, some very cool days, with some mental delight balancing out the physical distress for me.

If you liked this blog, please let me know by liking or leaving a comment here on the blog page. Thanks!

And for those who want more details on chickadees’ lives, see:
http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Parus_carolinensis/