Bird Lady Blog

May 26, 2015

Nesting and Babies


Steller's Jay feeding on Junco chick courtesy of Gordon Karre

Steller’s Jay feeding on Junco chick courtesy of Gordon Karre

I’ve already received reports from Munds Park residents that birds are in high-reproductive mode.  Dan sent me photos of a pair of Steller’s Jays that nested on the light above his garage door.  As I write this article (shortly after snow in May and really cold temperatures), the mother bird is in the nest keeping the chicks warm while the male keeps bringing food to them.  I also heard from Les who had a Dark-Eyed Junco, actually the Gray-Headed Junco sub-species that we have here in Munds Park, trying to build a nest in his wife’s Mandevilla plants in pots on the deck.  The human activity around the first pot seemed a bit more than the bird could handle, so she moved to a planter farther away on the deck.  We’ll have to see if she actually lays eggs and they hatch.

This time of year is very stressful for birds.  Selecting a mate and a suitable nest site, finding the nesting material and hauling it over to the site, laying the eggs, sitting on them and still getting enough food to sustain a healthy female – it all takes a toll on the parents.  On top of that, there are predators who would love to snack on the eggs plus the chicks themselves.  These predators include other birds plus raccoons, skunks, and snakes.  I recently experienced this last threat in Scottsdale.  A Gamble’s Quail built a nest and laid 14 eggs in a pot with an asparagus fern at our front door.  We stopped using the front door and I posted a sign for anyone approaching the house – “Caution, Quails Nest!  Please do Not Disturb”.  One Sunday morning I peeked out the shutters and feathers were everywhere, as were egg shells and some left-over yolks.  It must have been a coyote that came right up to our front door in the middle of the night and made a dinner of our resident quail and her eggs.

So what can you do?  First and foremost, do not let your cats out of the house.  Keep them indoors – at all times.  It is estimated that there are 77 million cats in the USA, and only 35% of them are kept indoors.  Those that go outside kill adult birds, baby birds, and other wildlife.  Not because they are hungry – because owners spend billions of dollars on cat food – but because they can and they do.  It’s their nature.  So do us all a favor – keep your cats indoors.  And tell   your neighbors to keep their cats indoors.  (I suppose “explain nicely” is a better way to put it.)

Secondly, if you do have nest boxes (for Western Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Mountain Chickadees, Brown Creepers, and White-Breasted Nuthatches) – make sure they conform to good nest box design and practices.  You can go online and start with birding hobby companies and order boxes with the right dimensions.  Or you can get designs that are easy to build, like the ones I use to make nest boxes with pine and a few battery-operated hand tools.  You should clean out nest boxes after every season.  Make sure they are secured and won’t crash down with our Munds Park winds in May and June.  Last fall we put up seven new Western Bluebird nest boxes on trees around the Pinewood Country Club – can’t wait to see if they will be occupied this year.  We also cleaned out the others – so all in all there are some good opportunities to provide safe nesting sites for our Western Bluebirds and Tree Swallows.

What I Learned in Africa About Munds Park Birding


African Fish-Eagle

African Fish-Eagle

This past January we took a three-week trip to southern Africa to golf and go on safaris.  I of course also planned to do some semi-serious birding.  Semi-serious in that I made no changes to our itinerary to see specific birds, but I did take with me a field guide of the most common 500 birds of southern Africa and my lightweight Leopold binoculars.  I learned several things on this trip.

  1. There are many families of birds in southern Africa (in our case Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa) that are similar to birds here in Munds Park and were easy for me to identify. For example, we have the Pied Grebe species here, seen regularly in Lake Odell or the Pinewood Country Club’s ponds.   The Little Grebe species of southern Africa is similar but even smaller.  We were golfing, and there it was in a pond near the 1st tee box.  It is so small that at first I thought it was a baby or juvenile.  Another example is the African Fish-Eagle.  It has a white head and dark body and you would think “Bald Eagle” when you first spot it.  We see an occasional Bald Eagle in Munds Park soaring in the sky or perched high in a tree limb. We also get Canada Geese in Munds Park, and in Africa they get the Egyptian Goose.  Both species are often considered pests at parks and golf courses because they are so common and so messy.  One of the smaller, similar birds I identified was a Barn Swallow – almost exactly like the ones we have in Munds Park.  And we have our Band-Tailed Pigeon, which is unique to the western United States.  In Botswana I saw the Speckled Pigeon and the African Green Pigeon species.
  2. Another thing I learned is that there are many families of birds in Munds Park that have no connection to any in southern Africa, at least in my non-scientific opinion. I didn’t see nuthatches (we have White-Breasted, Pygmy, and Red-Breasted), or hummingbirds (we have Anna’s and Rufous) or anything similar to our Munds Park’s Black-Headed Grosbeak or Western Bluebird.
  3. There were a lot of bird families I had to become familiar with, and I was helped greatly because we had very knowledgeable safari guides with us. Bee-eaters, Barbets, Bulbuls, Hornbills, and Weavers were just some of the new bird families I saw, and within those families there were different unique species.  The feather colors and sizes and shapes of their bills or head feathers always made for challenging and fun bird watching by all of us on the trip.
  4. Speaking of all of us on the trip, there were 12 of us, and everyone became a mini-birder during those three weeks. Everyone commented that seeing all the birds in between Lion or Hippo watching, for example, made the trip much more interesting.  All in all I was able to identify 125 new bird species – without trying very hard.
  5. The last thing I learned is to be prepared. I took one pair of binoculars – I should have taken at least a second pair.  I could have used stronger binoculars (such as a 10×50) for longer distances, plus others on the trip could have used my spare when I wasn’t.  Having the field guide in advance was a real advantage.  To translate that to Munds Park, I would suggest you have a field guide of US Western Birds, at minimum, handy in your house and invest in a decent pair of binoculars.  I have used Eagle Optics and Amazon when ordering online, and you can find a satisfactory pair for under $200.

The Bluebird Nest Box Project

Filed under: Birding,Western Bluebird — Munds Park Birding @ 10:36 am
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Hanging the Bluebird Nest BoxMany of you reading this article have bird houses on your property.  I’m guessing that a few of you received them as gifts and decorations. Others have purchased or built them yourself in the hopes of attracting one of Munds Park’s cavity-nesting species and to ensure a safe and appropriate habitat for breeding birds.  Regardless of the how and why, it is important to remember that if we put up a nest box, we are responsible for ensuring it is done in the safest way possible to protect the breeding bird.

Here in Munds Park the cavity nesting species are Mountain Chickadee, House Wren, Brown Creeper, Western Bluebird, and Tree Swallow.  The first three require a nest box with an opening diameter of 1 and 1/8 inches.  The last two require an opening of 1 and 1/2 inches.  You can buy nest boxes through many non-profit birding organizations or online retail sites – just search the internet and you will be amazed at the selections and sources.  You will also learn that ornithologists have figured out the most appropriate specifications for depth, width, and type of wood and other material to help ensure the most success for birds that use the boxes.  You can find free nest box plans on the internet.

One of my goals this year was to help with the bluebird nest boxes on the Pinewood Country Club golf course.  So, a couple of weeks ago Kathy K. and I set out with a ladder hitched to the back of a golf cart, a bag of cedar shavings, a tool box with two battery-powered drills, 3 and 4 inch long screws, gloves, a hammer, and various screwdrivers.  We really didn’t know what we might encounter so we wanted to be prepared.  Our goal was to clean out the dozen or so bluebird nest boxes on the course and put up six more.  Here’s what we found.

Cleaning out the existing boxes was pretty easy because each had a side door that pulled up once the door latch was slid open.  All the boxes had evidence of nesting birds.  Some of them seemed to have three different nests piled on top of each other, which we ascertained based on the type and deterioration of the material.  One nest was almost completely made of dog or another type of animal hair.  That probably was not a Western Bluebird nest.  We were careful each time we opened a box – not knowing what could be inside.  Hornets?  A snake?  Our only surprise was a swarm of ants in one of the boxes on Hole #12.  Luckily we had on gloves and were fast on our feet because ants were everywhere once we opened the box.  That box happened to have 4 Western Bluebird eggs at the bottom – laid but never hatched.  That is probably why the ants were there – they had eaten out the insides of the eggs.

We learned from Dan Bright, head of golf course maintenance, that the boxes were put up by Pinewood Country Club about 10-12 years ago.  They probably were donated through one of the non-profit bluebird societies.  The boxes were still in good shape but some were close to falling down.  After tossing the old nesting material, we drilled through the back of the boxes and inserted one or two good-sized screws to further secure them.  The final step was placing about a two-inch layer of cedar shavings in each – sort of like putting out a bluebird welcome mat.

The next process was hanging the six new nest boxes.  That is where the ladder came in most handy.  Bluebird nest boxes should face east and be hung five to eight feet off the ground.  They also should be at least 100 yards apart.  A golf course is a good place for bluebirds – they need meadow-like surroundings and an abundance of food in terms of grubs, worms, spiders, and other insects.

Next summer we will cautiously monitor the next boxes and see how many are occupied.  The boxes are typically set off the beaten path and nesting activity certainly will not disturb the golfers.  Rather, I hope that when I am out on the course and hit an errant shot, instead of getting upset, I can take a deep breath, look at a beautiful bird going about its business of propagating the species and keeping nature balanced, and put golf and life in the proper perspective.

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