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….


Juneteenth, historic Stagville and wildlife at Horton Grove

volunteer IMG_3788© Maria de Bruyn resSeveral weeks ago, in honor of Juneteenth, the local Triangle Land Conservancy partnered with the Stagville Foundation to inform people about the remnants of a former plantation and its surrounding meadows and forest. I attended and was indeed educated and enlightened about the local history and excited by the local wildlife.

Juneteenth (June 19th) is the oldest celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. “Historic Stagville” was once the largest plantation in the state of North Carolina. The almost 30,000 acres were tended by some 900 slaves, most of whom lived in family groups as the plantation owner families tended not to sell the laborers they “owned”.

Stagville IMG_3824© Maria de Bruyn res Stagville IMG_3747© Maria de Bruyn res

Local volunteers were dressed in period costume and demonstrated Southern cooking as they prepared a one-pot (non-vegetarian) meal for visitors and a more sumptuous traditional dinner to be served to all the volunteers at the end of the festivities.

Stagville IMG_3813© Maria de Bruyn res Stagville IMG_3810© Maria de Bruyn res

Stagville DK7A4791© Maria de Bruyn resThey cooked over open fires and explained which local vegetables they were using to prepare the dishes.

Meanwhile, other volunteers gave us some history about Stagville as we visited the Great Barn, one of the multifamily houses built for slaves and another home constructed by freed slaves who became sharecroppers after the US Civil War ended. The structures were produced by the slaves, who included a number of skilled craftsmen.

great barn IMG_3759© Maria de Bruyn resThe 3-story Great Barn was the largest structure of its kind when it was built in the space of five months in 1860, housing some farming tools and equipment but primarily serving as an enclosure for 75 mules.



Great barn IMG_3721© Maria de Bruyn resGreat barn IMG_3728© Maria de Bruyn res Great barn  IMG_3720© Maria de Bruyn res

slave house IMG_3791© Maria de Bruyn resThe houses for the slave families were well built with wooden floors and fireplaces. This was not benevolence on the part of the plantation owners but done from an economic perspective – it would cost less to have the workers housed a bit decently rather than to have to pay medical bills to keep them healthy enough for labor.

Slave house IMG_3750© Maria de Bruyn res sharecropper house IMG_3752© Maria de Bruyn res

A couple slaves were freed before emancipation and a very few escaped. In North Carolina, some slaves were taught to read and write and letters written by two individuals who left Stagville provide some written history about the conditions there. Today, some descendants of freed Stagville slaves still live in this area.

slave house IMG_3771© Maria de Bruyn res quilt IMG_3779© Maria de Bruyn resquilt IMG_3780© Maria de  res

deer skull IMG_3770© Maria de Bruyn resAfter the tour of the remaining buildings and seeing two quilts on display in the sharecropper home open to the public, I joined a few others for a walk through the surrounding forest. We came across the skull of a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) with an odd shape – the Conservancy tour guide explained that the top of the deer’s head had been sawed off so a hunter could take home its antlers.

Indigo bunting DK7A4816© Maria de BruynAfter the walk, I went on to the Horton Grove Nature Preserve, up the road from Stagville. The walking and hiking trails are all named after slave families that lived on the plantation.  For example, the Justice trail commemorates a family that included a man who was interviewed for a slave narrative project in 1937. I saw some indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea), who sang loudly, a couple red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) who were collecting nest materials, and a male common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) who was having a meal.

red-eyed vireo DK7A4922© Maria de BruynCommon yellowthroat DK7A5611© Maria de Bruyn

Some great spangled fritillary butterflies (Speyeria cybele) were very busy feeding in a part of the meadow that was crowded with common milkweed flowers (Asclepias syriaca) in full bloom.

great spangled fritillary DK7A5377© Maria de Bruyn res great spangled fritillary DK7A5350© Maria de Bruyn res


great spangled fritillary DK7A5011© Maria de Bruyn resGreat spangled fritillary DK7A5052© Maria de Bruyn res

The dogbane beetles (Chrysochus auratus) were numerous and looking for mates as they trundled around on the dogbane plants (Apoynum cannabinum).

dogbane beetle DK7A5209© Maria de Bruyn resdogbane beetle DK7A5441© Maria de Bruyn

summer tanager DK7A5572© Maria de Bruyn


The morning ended with a brief glimpse of a male summer tanager (Piranga rubra) in the distance, a bright note to end the outing.


volunteer IMG_3782© Maria de Bruyn resUnfortunately, recent events in Charleston have emphasized once again that the racism underlying the system that created Stagville still exists and still leads to violence against non-Caucasian people. This blog does not intend to imply that the Stagville plantation and its heritage contribute to making my world more beautiful – what IS beautiful is the way in which the Stagville Foundation volunteers work to inform and educate others about the history that affects our current society.

We must all continue to address the aberrations of hatred and discrimination based on race (and other culturally assigned characteristics such as gender and ethnicity) and work to educate ourselves, our fellow adults and young people on the need to simply treat everyone as we personally wish to be treated — we are all part of the human race and no other “races” (should) matter.