Winged Highlights from Spring, 2020

Wildlife watching around the house and on local trails has occupied much of my free time this spring. The backyard has been an aviary, with an unprecedented variety and abundance of birds visiting feeders and, now, nesting in adjacent habitats.

I’m posting images in chronological order to illustrate the weather roller coaster and subsequent environmental responses during the last two months of this unusual spring season.

16April2020. While sitting in a ground blind hoping to photograph a turkey that was gobbling earlier in the morning, a male bluebird burst onto the scene. Despite the snow and cold, he appeared to be evaluating nest boxes and thinking ahead to nicer weather! In May, a pair of bluebirds did, in fact, build a nest in one of the boxes, only to abandon it and disappear when yet another spring snowstorm blew through.

29April2020. Spring events, including the arrival of red-winged blackbirds and the bloom of shrubby willows, were about two weeks late this year. After several attempts, I was pleased to capture both the bird and blooms in the same frame. The territorial song and breeding display of the redwing is a sure sign of spring and something we all look forward to. “The redwings have arrived!”.

30April2020. Record numbers of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were seen at feeders this spring. Unmistakable in a splash of bold and vivid colors, they quickly became the main attraction and the talk of the town!

10May2020. As their numbers increase around the country, eagles must adapt to human activity in order to capitalize on suitable habitats and food sources near people. This adult just left its nest in a residential area to hunt for fish and waterfowl in local reservoirs and road-killed animals in agricultural areas.

12May2020. Dozens of Goldfinches swarmed the neighborhood tube feeders for weeks this spring, to the point that Niger seed disappeared from store shelves. The birds far outnumbered the available feeding platforms on my modest feeder, leading to chaos and frequent displays of aggression.

13May2020. All seems right with the world when Tree Swallows arrive to claim nest boxes and showcase their magical flight maneuvers as they pursue air-borne insects. They’re most cooperative and photogenic on bright, chilly mornings when they’re apt to perch and preen in the sun. before take-off.

19May2020. Baltimore Orioles exploded onto the scene in May, dazzling with their vivid plumage and beautiful song. It wasn’t long before they received a red carpet welcome of sliced oranges, dishes of jelly and sugar water (in hummingbird feeders).

30May2020.

20May2020. Indigo Buntings, erratic visitors to feeders, are fairly small songbirds that are easily overlooked when moving about in the shadows and dense foliage of thickets. Due to widespread and lingering appearance at feeders this year, everyone now knows and appreciates Indigo Buntings! Their unique coloration is mesmerizing.

9June2020. For several years now, a pair of House Wrens has occupied a nest box on my garden fence. Their musical talents and voracious appetite for bugs more than compensate for their drab plumage. The garden experience wouldn’t be the same without them.

12June2020. The garden pests have more than a family of wrens to worry about. A pair of cute little tail-bobbing phoebes are nesting on a rafter in the open wood shed, not far from the wrens. They too are feasting on insects throughout the day….I think there’s enough to go around.

13June2020. Caught in an awkward preening position, this feisty male hummer guards the sugar-water feeder early in the morning and again late in the evening. His head is on a swivel as he diligently searches for another male invading his territory. The light is rarely adequate for a sharp image, but sometimes the scene trumps quality!

Photos by NB Hunter (April 10 – June 13, 2020). © All rights reserved.

 

 

Nest Building 101

I received these instructions from a cavity nesting songbird, one that serenades me while I’m  working in the garden: the common House Wren.

Step 1.In the absence of a hollow tree, find a small box with a hole in it. Stuff the box with tiny twigs (about 600, give or take a hundred). Leave some room at the top for bedding and the kids. Oh, and in your spare time, stuff every other nest box in sight with twigs to discourage the competition.

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Step 2. Scavenge some soft material for bedding (you don’t want the kids flying around with a stick up their butt). Fragments of insulation from a nearby dog kennel work well.

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Step 3. Sing loud and often to let the world know what you’ve done. And that you own it.

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My biological control strategy for insect pests!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The Arboreal Bloom

Small flowering trees are a beautiful element in spring landscapes, cultivated and wild alike. Their peak blooming periods coincide with, or follow, the traditional flush of spring wildflowers and can be spectacular. Severe winter weather limits our species diversity, but the few that prosper are eagerly anticipated spring highlights.

The first species of note to appear in natural landscapes is Serviceberry, also called Shadbush, Juneberry or Amelanchier. In late June and early July, I’ll be competing with robins, catbirds and grouse for the small, blueberry-like fruits.

Serviceberry in full bloom, weeks beyond normal due to extended cold weather in late winter and early spring

Redbud flourishes in the wild a couple hundred miles to the south. Here, it performs fairly well at lower elevations in cultivated landscapes — when the flower buds don’t freeze.

Eastern Redbud, just beyond peak bloom (flowers generally develop before the leaves; 1 of 2)

The most prominent small, flowering tree in Central New York is, oddly, an introduced species: wild (domestic) apple. There are many varieties in the wild, differing slightly in form, flower color, fruit characteristics, etc. But, as a whole, the value added to our visual resources is immeasurable.

House Wren in a wild apple tree near its nest box

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

House Wrens

The ubiquitous House Wren is a seasonal favorite: they’re energetic, bug-eating machines, and apt to sing throughout the day. Of the three nest boxes near the brushy borders of my lawn, two are occupied by wren families. The third was claimed and filled by a male during the mating season, but rejected by his mate in favor of of a box nearby, the one anchored to a garden fence post.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Nest-building Songbirds

In an earlier post (Habitat Management for Songbirds, 4/21/13) I covered the use of artificial nest boxes by cavity-nesting birds. As an update to that, about a dozen boxes are now occupied and most Tree Swallows, Bluebirds and House Wrens are on nests.

However, I first heard the Great Crested Flycatcher just a week ago and yesterday had an opportunity to watch as one brought small bundles of pine straw (shed White Pine needles on the ground) to a nest box. Curiously, of the many boxes distributed over several acres, this same site is chosen year in and year out by the flycatchers.

 

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I also discovered that a pair of House Wrens, perhaps late arrivals, had claimed an empty box in a thicket  near the edge of the yard.

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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