Mama and Papa house wren to the rescue!

A few times each day, I walk outside with my 18.5-year-old cat, Jonahay, who is deaf and has some other ailments. He used to be an indoor-outdoor cat until I decided that it was better not to let him roam the neighborhood.

 

 

He rarely killed anything; he just wanted to mark his territory (which he still does) and occasionally he would catch moving things and bring them inside.

Thankfully, he didn’t bring me dead birds or animals; I did have to capture baby rabbits, chipmunks and a snake or two so they could go back outside. Now he just walks around and sleeps on the porch with me at his side; chipmunks and squirrels walk by him as they know he won’t chase them.

This afternoon as I was vacuuming, Jonahay came to ask for a walk, so I paused to take him outside for a few minutes. When we got to the side yard, I was surprised by a pair of house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) who were chittering vigorously and loudly in a cedar tree above me. They had not nested in my yard this year but do visit once in a while.

 

As I moved, they moved with me, continuously calling – their vocalization was very obviously directed at me, but I didn’t see any young ones anywhere so I wasn’t sure why they were so upset.

One of them – the male, I presume – only paused his calling for a few seconds when he groomed a little. I kept looking around for what might be upsetting them but didn’t see anything. Jonahay indicated we could go inside and the wrens had to let me leave.

 

As I took the vacuum cleaner into the kitchen, which opens onto a screened-in porch, I suddenly noted a few tiny feathers on the floor. If the wrens hadn’t been “yelling” at me, I might have just glanced down and thought they were bits of cat toy or fluff. But now I was more alert!

I called my two other (indoor) cats and they didn’t come, which was suspicious. Even when they look at animals through the windows and screens, they will usually react if I speak to them. When I entered the laundry room on the other side of the kitchen, there were Moasi (shown left)  and Ogi (right), sitting on the washer and dryer watching a juvenile wren perched on the window sill!

I don’t know how the bird got into the house. Likely, it had been early in the morning when I opened the porch door for a few minutes as I put out bird food, but I had not seen the bird on the porch when I re-entered. During the morning and early afternoon, I hadn’t noticed the cats chasing anything either so the mystery remains. I hadn’t been outside much with all my chores so perhaps those parents had been calling for him all that time.

In any event, I shooed Moasi and Ogi out of the room and proceeded to open the window. The little wren jumped into a plastic container near the window and that enabled me to easily move him/her to the open window. The bird waited a minute (enabling me to quickly get his photo) and then flew out to freedom – and obviously to a pair of anxious but effectively protective parents!

     

Nest Watch citizen science – 2016 edition

Carolina wren Renee and Riley I77A9074© Maria de Bruyn resLast year, I became a Nest Watch volunteer, which involves having birds banded in your yard so that you can follow and report to researchers the birds’ presence over time as they visit and leave your yard.

In 2015, we banded six birds. If a bird is only a temporary visitor or if it died outside the yard due to disease, old age or predation, you just won’t see it again and have no idea what became of it. The American robin (Turdus migratorius) that was banded last year never returned. If the birds stick around, however, you have the enjoyment of observing birds you get to know. The three gray-headed catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) stayed around all summer and fall, and two of them – Camden and Corey – returned to my yard from winter migration a few days ago. They have been accompanied by females whom they appear to be assiduously courting.
gray-headed catbird Camden I77A8990© Maria de Bruyn res

gray-headed catbird Corey I77A8083© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal Clancy I77A8123© Maria de Bruyn resOne Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) was banded last year, but Clancy only stayed a few days and then disappeared for the rest of the summer, fall and winter. He suddenly appeared yesterday – perhaps encouraged to spend time at the feeders by the other birds with bracelets.

Three days ago, a second round of banding was done and we put the colorful anklets on a total of 10 birds. They were caught in two mist nets – one near my back garden and one near the backyard feeders.

Northern cardinal Camilla I77A9127© Maria de Bruyn resThe nets had just been installed when our first visitor, a female Northern cardinal, was caught. She was not happy and when put in a bag until she could be banded, weighed, examined and measured, she did not remain still and calm. She had a little wait, however, as a female Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) flew into the other net at just about the same time, followed by her mate within seconds. As the cardinals can tolerate being in a bag better than the smaller birds, the two wrens were banded first. Alicia let the first one go and then I released the second one, who rested on my palm for a bit. He felt so nice and soft!

Carolina wren Riley IMG_3832© Maria de Bruyn res

Forty-five minutes later, playback of a house wren’s song (Troglodytes aedon) led to the capture of a male who immediately came to investigate who was invading his territory. His mate, who was busy putting the finishing touches on a nest in a box near the mist net, didn’t go near the net.

house wren Hans IMG_3842© Maria de Bruyn reshouse wren Hans IMG_3844© Maria de Bruyn res

A few birds not targeted for the study ended up tangled in a net. A white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) had beautiful vivid breeding colors on his head. A red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) was not calm like the sparrow, fluttering his wings constantly as Alicia, the bird bander, got him loose.

white-throated sparrow IMG_3837© Maria de Bruyn res red-bellied woodpecker IMG_3822© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up were a male cardinal and a female American robin. Like last year, the birds were measured and weighed. Although about the same length, the weight difference between the heaviest Northern cardinal we banded (41.2 oz) and the American robin was striking (79.6oz). The robin’s fondness for worms and other dietary preferences helps account for this. When I let her go, she didn’t feel very heavy in my hand as she rested a second before flying off.

American robin Raisin IMG_3854© Maria de Bruyn

Except for birds that were molting their tail feathers, Alicia also removed the third left tail feather; this is done primarily for stable isotope analysis, which allows a researcher to estimate where the bird was when that feather was grown.

Northern cardinal Crake I77A0559© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina chickadee Chancey I77A7762© Maria de Bruyn resThe catbirds avoided the mist nets skillfully this year. Playback of their songs drew them to the vicinity but the two pairs visiting the feeders were more interested in chasing each other away from the territory. Alicia hoped that we could get a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis); with playback we got a male and then, 45 minutes later after banding another cardinal, we got a pair of them.

Carolina chickadee Chase I77A0348© Maria de Bruyn res Carolina chickadee Chantal I77A9525© Maria de Bruyn res

Alicia blew on the birds’ undersides (forgive the blurry photo) to assess fat reserves, which are stored along the flanks and up near the furcula by the collar bone. She could also determine sex that way and thought that one chickadee might be developing an egg – hopefully, one of the females who lost a nest to predators in my yard a week ago. The last male chickadee released was out of sorts after the experience; before leaving my hand to fly off rapidly, he turned and bit me as a parting shot.

Carolina wren Renee IMG_3813© Maria de Bruyn res Carolina chickadee IMG_3856© Maria de Bruyn res

Alicia had remarked that she hoped no tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) would be caught; they are not part of the study and she said they are so feisty that their bites can be a bit painful like those of the cardinals. Unfortunately, one leaving a feeder did end up in a net and lived up to its reputation as a feisty bird. A chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), who was the last bird in a net remained fairly calm as the net was removed from its claws.

tufted titmouse IMG_3858© Maria de Bruyn res

Tufted titmouse IMG_3861© Maria de Bruyn res

Yesterday, I spent some time watching the feeders and yard to see if all the banded birds had left. Luckily, some of them showed up and were here again today. So here are a few of “my birds” with bling – this is a truly enjoyable citizen science project. 🙂

Northern cardinal Clarence I77A0124© Maria de Bruyn res Northern cardinal Crake I77A0593© Maria de Bruyn res

Clarence                                                                       Crake

Carolina wren Renee I77A9354© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina wren Riley I77A0508© Maria de Bruyn res

Renee and Riley Carolina wrens

 

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!