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….

  

Birds braving winter

American goldfinch IMG_1955©Maria de Bruyn

It’s not unheard to have snow in central North Carolina, but it also isn’t what you’d call a commonplace occurrence. It is a BIG deal when it snows here; if a couple inches of snow or some icing on the roads is expected, schools and businesses close. This is a cause of hilarity among people who originated from points north, but when they realize that many drivers here are not accustomed to winter-weather driving and that the Department of Transportation and towns are not equipped so well to deal with the conditions, they also will often stay inside and not go out on the road.

Carolina wren IMG_0424©Maria de BruynAmerican robin IMG_0326©Maria de Bruyn

When we had two days of snow and ice storms last week, it wasn’t only people who were unhappy. The birds also didn’t seem enamored with the climate change, like the American goldfinch up above (Spinus tristis). They had had a taste of snow at the end of January, but it wasn’t such a strong storm then.  The Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) was scurrying about looking for food under the snow and the American robin (Turdus migratorius) was enjoying some berries.  The February storm was a bit different though

Mourning dove IMG_2478©Maria de Bruyn

On the first day, when it didn’t snow heavily all at once (it was more a matter of lightly falling snow much of the day), I had a multitude of birds at my feeders – including some that I don’t usually see there. This mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), for example, didn’t scrounge around on the ground in the snow but landed on a feeder to see if there were seeds there.

Other birds flew back and forth between the trees and feeders, like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata), who weren’t always happy to have others sharing the feeders), and the tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

Yellow-rumped warbler IMG_2618©Maria de BruynTufted titmouse IMG_2355©Maria de Bruyn

When out walking in a furious flurry of fat snowflakes, I ran into a neighbor who does research on bird survival. I mentioned that on the first day of the storm, I had a multitude of birds at my feeders (probably a 100 or so) but now, with this heavier snowfall, not a bird was to be seen. He noted that, given bird’s short lifespans in some cases and the fact that many would be younger, they were likely hunkering down as this was their first encounter with these weather conditions.

Brown thrasher IMG_2127©Maria de Bruyn

Northern cardinal IMG_2375©Maria de Bruyn

Another neighbor down the road and I kept our feeders filled so that our avian friends could rev up their energy stores, like the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and the Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). The birds did their part by fluffing up their feathers to help keep body warmth as much as possible.  And they posed for some nice photos – albeit not with enthusiastic expressions, like this warbler and Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).

Yellow-rumped warbler IMG_2684©Maria de BruynNorthern mockingbird IMG_3455©Maria de Bruyn

Today, they should all be happy though – we’re expecting temperatures well in the upper 60s F! That should make for happy white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and all the other birds visiting my yard!

white-throated sparrow IMG_2564©Maria de BruynEastern towhee IMG_0670©Maria de Bruyn