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….

  

Warbler watching and migration – a shared pleasure for birders!

black-and-white-warbler-i77a3458-maria-de-bruynAutumn migration in North America has been underway for some weeks and our bird populations in North Carolina are changing in composition. Some birds stay year-round – for example, I see robins, blue jays, Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice in all seasons to my great delight. However, other birds who have been here since spring are now getting ready to leave for a southerly jaunt to a place that will be warmer for them in winter – most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds and some gray catbirds have departed already. (I have had a catbird stay year-round but others leave.) Many black and white warblers (Mniotilta varia) will be leaving, too.

american-redstart-i77a4367maria-de-bruyn-resThe Nature Conservancy has noted that the autumn songbird migration is one of the top four migrations in this state. The Audubon Society has even published a guide to this migration and when certain species usually begin their travels. (Left: American redstart male)

 

This seasonal event means that dedicated birders make special efforts to visit places where it’s likely we’ll see warblers. Many of North America’s 50 species don’t eat seed or suet, so you won’t find them visiting your feeders often. I have found, however, that pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) and yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) are pretty social and those who are here for the winter are already joining my “regular” birds at feeding stations. The pine warblers especially like suet (female left, male right below).

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The yellow rumps are still looking around a lot for insects; this one snagged a skipper butterfly.

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In the autumn, many of these songbirds no longer have their beautiful breeding plumage, which is often so distinctive that you can identify them easily, especially the males. I was lucky enough to see some of those beauties during spring migration as well as in the summer for the ones that spend the warmer months here.

prothonotary-warbler-i77a2854-maria-de-bruyn-res   prothonotary-warbler-i77a9933-maria-de-bruyn-res

Prothonotary warbler male (Protonotaria citrea)

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Yellow-throated (Setophaga dominica) & prairie warblers (Setophaga discolor)

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The warblers’ non-breeding coloration is frequently duller and drabber than their breeding plumage. Often only experienced birders can tell some species apart on first sight. Added to that is the fact that young birds don’t yet have their adult plumage and the immature males often look just like adult females. So it is a challenging time for identification, especially for me, but an exciting time for discoveries.

 

blackpoll-warbler-i77a1289-maria-de-bruyn-resGetting photos of these lovely birds can be tricky since they move about a lot in search of their insect meals. It is ultimately the pursuit of those culinary delights that leads the warblers to migrate South, since the insect population declines dramatically in areas with cold weather.

Nature photographer Mary had discovered a spot where the warblers could bathe in a relatively protected fashion; she kindly shared the location with some of us and a number of avid birders sat with her for hours waiting for the birds to appear. Some of our more “common” avian friends used the site, too, including a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum).

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A Northern waterthrush (also a warbler, Parkesia noveboracensis) found the spot enticing.

The trees around the water hosted birds as they looked for insects, like the black-throated blue warblers below (Setophaga caerulescens), seen a few weeks apart.

 

 

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A female American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) spent time working the shrubs surrounding the creek with some success.

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The male redstarts hopped about the branches and rocks hanging over the creek for a while before venturing below to bathe.

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The birds appeared to enjoy their bathing spot immensely, sometimes dipping under water over and over again.

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They also didn’t mind sharing the space with each other (or sometimes other species)..

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The Magnolia warblers (Setophaga magnolia) did the same, giving me some good looks and making my first in-person sighting of this species (lifer!) quite special.

 

 

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The chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)was a very vigorous bather!

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A male hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) made a brief appearance one day, followed by some female and male common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas).

 

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Another water body that provided me with some excellent views of warblers was the Haw River. In the small town of Bynum, a bridge crosses the river and gives birders a great vantage point to see birds in the tree canopy close to eye level. There I was able to see two more lifers a couple weeks ago – the first was a bay-breasted warbler (Setophaga castanea).

bay-breasted-warbler-i77a1004-maria-de-bruyn-res    bay-breasted-warbler-i77a1003-maria-de-bruyn-res

blackpoll-warbler-i77a1315-maria-de-bruyn-resThis beauty was followed by another that had me confused. At first, I thought I was seeing a kinglet but this bird was a bit large and then as I got closer looks, I realized it looked like a bay-breasted warbler but had yellow feet. A search on the Internet showed I had seen a blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata), likely a non-breeding male. Experts on an American Birding Association Internet site confirmed the ID for me.

blackpoll-warbler-i77a1320-maria-de-bruyn-res    blackpoll-warbler-i77a1329-maria-de-bruyn-res

black-and-white-warbler-i77a7204-maria-de-bruyn-resMy migration warbler watching culminated with some exciting finds in my own yard. I was surprised by several I hadn’t seen at home before, including common yellowthroats, a black and white warbler looking for insects in my willow oak and a gorgeous Northern parula (Setophaga americana), who even came to my feeders before pursuing a caterpillar in a Rose of Sharon nearby.

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I’m now hoping to see some birds that breed further North during the summer arrive here for their late fall/winter/early spring sojourn, such as a ruby-crowned kinglet who has spent time with me each winter for the last three years. Next time I’ll share some of my pollinator sightings with you, in the hope you find them as fascinating as me. Have a nice day!