Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Another Year, Another House Wren

Welcome back, troglodytes aedon.

Every spring there comes a time when I either read a report of returning house wrens or hear one in an area not far from where I live. That afternoon or the next day I get out the wren box I've written about many times before and hang it from the same carefully selected branch in the apple tree, so chosen so I can see the box opening while the leaves keep the box shaded from the late afternoon sun. (Several past posts on house wrens were written in June 2011, and you'll have to go back to find them rather than click on a link. Apologies.)

Wren box (Margo D. Beller)
Usually it takes a week to 10 days for a house wren to find the box. This year was no exception, although it took the wren a day or two of scoping out the yard first - it went to the seed feeder, although house wrens don't usually go to feeders, and the water utensils, then flew back to the bushes.

I know when the box has been chosen because this is when this tiny bird proclaims its territory loud and continuously with its bubbly song. I have seen it high in a tree or in a branch above my head that allows it to face the box. Once you learn its song, you don't forget it.

Also, I know when he has found a mate. The song is the same but it becomes softer, more like a reassuring "I'm here, I'm just nearby looking for food." One of its song takes on a rising pattern, almost like a warbler. And there is that harsh scolding noise it makes if I or anything else come too close to the nest box.

It is not long before the female, if she agrees this is the right spot for the young, places twigs in the box. Every year I look for the tell-tale bit of twig coming out of the bottom of the box, a sign that this place is in use so stay away. Considering five to eight eggs are laid, I am continually amazed a nest and brooding female can fit. When the eggs hatch, both parents take turns getting food and sitting on the nest.

As the chicks grow, the parents stay outside the nest box but in close proximity. One parent flies to the opening with an insect and the peeping begins. It only gets louder as the young birds get bigger.

It takes about two weeks for these eggs to hatch and another two weeks before the birds learn to fly and leave the nest. At that point the box goes silent but I hear the brood following one parent or another around the hedges at the edge of my yard.

House wren, back yard apple tree (Margo D. Beller)
I learn new things about house wrens every year. The rising song I mentioned before was new to me this year. In past years I've learned a house wren has no hesitation in destroying the nest of another bird to take over the spot, in that particular case a black-capped chickadee that got to the box first. I have also learned jays will eat house wren chicks if one has the misfortune to get too close to the opening at the wrong time, or falls out to the ground when attempting to fledge.

Most times, only one wren family uses the box each year. That may be because when the apples start growing the squirrels start climbing everywhere and I start picking or, if out of reach, batting at the apples to bring them down with an extension pole. At that point the house wren may decide this is not his neighborhood.

But once in a long while, when apple season is done, another house wren comes by and checks out the establishment. It may remove some of the twigs or it may just use what's there, like renting a furnished flat.

House wrens got their common name because they will build a nest in anything - a flower pot, the pocket of a shirt on a hook, a tiny space inside or next to your shed. As long as it provides shelter from bad weather and is hidden from predators, it can be used.

(The larger Carolina wren, which stays in my area all year, will also build nests in anything and will sing loud and long to proclaim territory, draw a mate and warn if danger is near, even if it is only me. But it is too big for my nest box. The tiny winter wren prefers a different type of habitat than what my yard can provide.)

My wren house offers a distinct advantage by its very wooden sturdiness and its hanging from a tensile wire strung from a branch. I've had to make some repairs to it over the years, but the pleasure my yearly tenants bring me is more than worth the effort. Then, when the house wrens head south for the winter, the box is cleaned and brought inside to await another year and another house wren.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

May weather has not been good. There have been hot days but they have been intermittent. Mostly the days have been cooler and wetter.

What has been good has been the birding. May is prime migration month in my part of the country, the time when the birds that have been wintering in South America, Central America and even the southern U.S. start heading north to their summer breeding grounds.

En route they stop to eat. When they do their internal systems tell them to sing loudly to proclaim their feeding territory and perhaps look for a mate. They are at their most colorful, but when they pass through, it is usually when the trees have finally begun to leaf out, making the search for these birds a pleasure and a challenge.

Yesterday morning, I got out later than I intended but still before 7 am to travel not very far from my home. My town is on the plains of a nearby mountain. Traveling a few minutes up the road takes you up the mountain. You pass through McMansions I remember going up 20 years ago, some for sale for the third or fourth time. At the top of the ridge is a playground and a parking lot, off which are several hiking trails.

However, I prefer to leave the lot, walk along the road to a power line cut, listening all the way.

Sometimes you get lucky. When I got out of the car I heard a ton of birds, most of them warblers, there in the parking lot. Now I had to use my memory because seeing the birds high up in the trees was not easy. Which bird sounds like this? Which bird sounds like that? I am not one of those birders who knows every single call for every single bird, although I wish I did at times like these.

Baltimore oriole (Margo D. Beller)
After noting what I thought I heard, I moved on to the cut, where the birding was easier. Yes, there was the prairie warbler I expected -- no wait, there are two singing at each other! Prairie warblers like shrubby, second-growth areas such as power line cuts, and I've heard at least one singing for years up here. It's call, once heard, is easily remember.

Now up pops a brown thrasher long enough for me to identify it before it dives into a shrub. What's this moving stealthily along? Why, it's the little yellow bandit known as the common yellow-throated warbler that acts more like a wren than the warblers I was hearing in the parking lot.

What's that flying into that treetop? An indigo bunting, shining deep blue in the green tree. It is doing an unintentional duet with the Baltimore oriole that flew across the road, allowing me to find this black and orange bird in the seeding oak.

Black-throated green warbler (Margo D. Beller)
Time flies fast when you are looking at and for birds. After what I realized was 30 minutes, I walked back to the lot. With the exception of the one bird I wanted to see because I see it is infrequently - a Nashville warbler - I was lucky enough to discover the birds I'd been hearing were now in closer trees. So there was the black and white warbler clinging to a tree branch. There was the American redstart flycatching in the treetop. There was the chestnut-sided warbler saying it was "pleased ta meet cha" with its song. There was the northern parula, a little bird with a very loud song.

And there, softly, from within the woods, I managed to hear the other bird I expected, the black-throated green warbler, singing its alternate song "zoo zee zoo zoo zee." 

A lot of birds in 60 minutes in an area hard by a residential area five minutes from my home. Only in May, the most wonderful time of the year.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Good, the Bad, the Birding in the Rain

April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.
-- T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Well, what about May?
-- Margo D. Beller

Thanks to Omega Blocks and riding lows and the other technical jargon weather forecasters like to throw at us, it has seemed more like Seattle than New Jersey so far this May. Rain, clouds, drizzle, cold. We've had to put the heat on again and use two quilts on the bed some nights.

Lord knows we need the rain to fill a major deficit, but why May? Why not April, when the showers were supposed to bring May flowers?

Whippany River, Patriots Path, May 7, 2016 Note the raindrops. (Margo D. Beller)
So it has been raining. And that has slowed down the northbound migration of the birds. But migration hasn't stopped and I have been seeing too many reports of warblers, tanagers and other passerine (perching) birds making their way to the various regional hotspots - Central Park in New York, Garrett Mountain and Great Swamp in New Jersey, among many others.

It was making me miserable. My free time during the week has been taken up by a number of things - starting with WORK - and I have been unable to get out to find some of these wonders. Recently, the weekends have been busy.

Finally, free time opened up Saturday and out I went - later than I had planned and wetter than I wanted it to be.

I don't know of any birder who likes birding in the rain. For one thing, it is hard to use your binoculars to look for movement in treetops. When the rain isn't making a branch twitch as though a yellow warbler is on it, the water is blurring your vision. And let's not forget the mud under your feet depending on where you happen to go.

Local knowledge is extremely helpful. So when the light drizzle started getting much harder, I knew that where I was going - part of a linear park known as Patriots Path that is lined with gravel, minimizing water ponding and muck - was going to be ok to bird in my sneakers rather than putting on heavy boots.

I was extremely lucky that day. Many, many birds were calling even though it was many hours past dawn. Maybe birds like singing in the rain, or they didn't realize time was passing because the clouds obscured the sun. Whatever, they were singing and since I had to depend on my memory and my hearing I had a fine time noting the many birds out there.

Another benefit - I was alone. The exception was a woman who opened her car door and two giant yellow labs bounded out, barking, and ran to me. Don't get me started on how much of a pain it is to encounter an unleashed dog in a park as I am seeking birds. The dogs scared off the hooded warbler that had just started singing close enough for me to touch. I was trying to find it when they arrived. I yelled at the owner, who quickly leashed the dogs and took them up the trail and into the woods.

Patriots Path itself. One of the few really wet areas, despite the crushed stone below.
(Margo D. Beller)
I went the other way. The only person who passed me was a man, in full rain gear, on his mountain bike. I expect he ran into the woman with the dogs and can only hope she kept them on the leash once out of my sight so they didn't charge him.

Aside from that, it was me and the birds.

Birding in the rain can be tricky. Besides the discomfort of being soaked to the skin, looking up for land birds is difficult. There was the time we got caught in a downpour at Prime Hook in Delaware. Luckily we found a lean-to and waited for a letup that never happened. We might've heard a sparrow of some kind but otherwise, nothing.

Once we were in Chicago only for a very short time and wanted to bird some of the big areas near Montrose Beach on Lake Michigan. It rained our one day there and it kept up when we got off the closest El stop and only got harder as we walked to the lake, the famous wind making the rain hit us sideways, our umbrellas nearly useless. A birder in shorts and sandals (wisely, no umbrella) ran up and asked if we were looking for the common loon that had been reported. "We're all loons here, brother," I thought but did not say. (No, we did not see the loon, which is very common in New England, where we've seen it many times, but not in the midwest.)

Not only were we completely soaked, but so were the contents of my knapsack, despite my attempts at protection. That was the worst "birding in the rain" experience we've had. Thank you, Windy City.

Great Blue Heron (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
Not every rain experience is bad, however. We wanted to visit Pea Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I'd read a volunteer gave free tours on only one day. That day it poured. MH said, they won't hold this. We went into the office and there was the volunteer, ready to go, whether anyone showed up or not. We and one other couple went out with him but the other couple quickly bailed.

He set up his scope atop one of the dikes and we had a wonderful time observing water birds not disturbed at all by the rain - great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, white ibis and the usually reclusive American bittern among many. Looking straight out rather than up was a big help.

Rain doesn't bother water birds. And as I learned the other day, rain doesn't bother land birds singing without stop because they are intent on setting up territories and finding a mate to continue the species.

Still, I hope my next big bird outing is in sunshine.