Tree Swallows

Countless species of woody plants, native and exotic, invade abandoned farmland after a few short years. Dogwoods, viburnums, honeysuckles, buckthorn, multiflora rose and white ash are prominent colonizers in this area. In order to sustain a variety of wildlife species on these sites, some sort of habitat management is inevitable. The maintenance of large herbaceous openings with an annual mowing (brush-hogging) that subordinates and/or eliminates woody vegetation is one example. With the addition of nest boxes, such habitats will attract and support tree swallows, blue birds, house wrens and other cavity nesting birds.

The first migratory bird species to arrive and claim nest boxes at my location is the tree swallow (in more suitable habitat it might be the bluebird). I watch several pairs of tree swallows every spring as they feed on the wing, court, fight, build nests, defend nests and raise young. Every year I think I have enough swallow pics and will leave the camera at home while I’m working in the field. And every year I take more pictures! Love these graceful little bug-eating machines!!!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Habitat Management for Songbirds

The management of habitat for non-game wildlife like songbirds can be very rewarding. My management practices are guided by some basic principles that help keep me pointed in the right direction: copy nature, enhance biodiversity, and plan for sustainable, cost-effective activities.

One such plan involves a few acres where I’m attempting to arrest and reverse the natural succession of pasture to fallow field to forest.  The site was last grazed about 25 years ago and is now a mixture of herbaceous vegetation, woody shrubs and young trees. My management goals are to 1-arrest succession on the majority of the fallow field, keeping it in the brushy, shrub stage; 2-reverse succession on small areas within the shrub habitat, creating herbaceous, meadow-like openings; and 3-control invasive plant species. Habitat boundaries are irregular and lack clear definition to simulate nature. Mechanical control is favored over other methods. Songbird nest boxes were installed on posts in the herbaceous openings (six in all).

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Brush-hogging to create an herbaceous opening; nest box on left

These types of habitats are preferred by dozens of wildlife species, from butterflies to deer, and have provided me with countless hours of recreation, nature study and photographic opportunities.

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Part of a family group of White-tailed Deer using an herbaceous opening soon after it was created

This post features a group of birds with broad appeal and interest that are benefiting from my management plan: cavity-nesting songbirds that use artificial nest boxes. The most common nest box in the landscape, one designed for the Eastern Bluebird, was my pattern of choice. I was hoping for bluebirds but was also aware of the multi-use value of nest boxes, especially where natural cavities in trees are limiting. In open habitats, nest boxes are commonly occupied by House Wrens and Tree Swallows, and on rare occasions the Great Crested Flycatcher.

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House Wren

House Wrens can be a bit of a nuisance, stuffing every nest box in sight with twigs, floor to ceiling, to discourage the competition (my father once counted over 700 twigs in a dummy nest – a considerable amount of work – for both parties!)

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House Wren

Tree Swallows in early April, resting, preening, and scouting nest boxes (5)

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Great Crested Flycatchers first claimed a meadow nest box three years ago. I knew that they were cavity nesters, but had never seen them occupy a nest box. The entrance hole to this box had been enlarged slightly by a Red Squirrel, perhaps making it more suitable for the flycatchers.

Great Crested Flycatchers, nest building (4)

 

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All of the featured species consume large quantities of insects throughout the spring and summer months, contributing to ecosystem stability and biodiversity.

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Great Crested Flycatcher with food for its young

Eastern Bluebirds prefer open habitats with low, herbaceous plant cover, such as pastures and large lawns. Without periodic maintenance, fallow fields eventually lose these characteristics and the bluebirds inhabitants as well

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One of a winter (January) flock of 8 – 10 bluebirds, an unusual sighting.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds that claimed a nest box on one of the recently cleared openings; resting, feeding, nest building, and guarding the nest box.

 

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Eastern Bluebird, male

 

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Eastern Bluebird, male

 

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Eastern Bluebird, female

 

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Eastern Bluebird, female, nest building

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Eastern Bluebird, male, guarding the nest box as Tree Swallows swarmed in to investigate.

I’m obviously an advocate of artificial nest boxes for wildlife, particularly when a need is identified. However, I also feel that natural tree cavities should be the highest priority. I  locate and protect den trees when working in the woods and sometimes create potential den or nest trees if natural cavities are lacking. 

All photos by NB Hunter