A day in the life of a back-yard birder

  • Updated: July 1, 2014 - 1:56 PM

Watching birds build nests and raise their broods can fill a birder’s diary.

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House wrens sing to their mates.

Photo: Jim Williams • Special to the Star Tribune,

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The house wren awakens me at 6:30 Friday morning, singing loudly from a tree just outside the bedroom window. I count: four seconds between songs — or actually a song, since he repeats himself endlessly.

He hasn’t used this perch before, thank goodness, with his claimed territory in the brush on the shady east side of the yard. We have two nest boxes over there, back in thickety honeysuckle. The wren has filled one with sticks. He has built a dummy nest, meant to impress his mate if he can ever find one.

The bird has been singing courtship for about three weeks. We began to feel sorry for him, poor lonely wren.

Sitting on our deck a few minutes later, I discover that perhaps he was singing in celebration. His perch is unusually high, the better to serenade his mate. He has succeeded.

So we will add house wrens to the list of resident nesters. A set of Canada goose eggs recently hatched, timed to join the hooded merganser and her four young that were swimming in our pond later that day. Two days later, one of two nesting wood duck hens swam with 15 ducklings.

A robin is building a nest beneath our deck on its support structure. There is a chickadee at work on a nest in a box at pond’s edge.

All of this pleases me. Yellow warblers and common yellowthroats are nesting in the swampy wilderness behind the pond. Red-winged blackbirds and Northern catbirds are there, too. I wanted to buy this house because of this yard, the pond and the swamp. I count on the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District to make watching tolerable.

Nest watch

Keeping track of my singing wren, I watch it go into the chickadee box. Check that: No chickadee nest is there, all nesting material seen last week now history. Wrens do that. They take over, by force if necessary. The male needs a place for a real nest now that he has a mate.

Eventually, I see a second wren. While what I presume to be the male stuffs more sticks into the box, the new one perches atop it, fluttering her wings, behavior that helps the birds bond: “I’m yours forever” in wren.

The nest-builder has a spell where he delivers a stick to the box at eight-second intervals. I count things; I’m curious. This bird is investing an enormous amount of energy in his reproductive effort. He is driven, as are all birds — although not always at this pace — to keep wrens on the face of the earth. He sings endlessly and works hard on dummy nests because it is his genes he wants in that continuing population.

The robin, when it catches my eye and I investigate, has 10 housing starts on a deck beam. Straggles of grass mark the progression. Perhaps our frequent use of the deck has put the bird off one location after another, although the moves are only 6 inches apart.

Watching, I find the robin pair has settled on a location at deck’s end, near the cover of a grapevine.

A great crested flycatcher, a singer heard for the past two weeks, flies into the nest box recently vacated by the wood ducks. This bird is a cavity nester. The box would be a mansion for a guy his size. I’ll keep an eye on that.

I have two perfectly good songbird nest boxes in trees back there that have gone unused for 10 years. I move them. I make improvements. I follow book instructions. The birds do not care.

Moving on

The merganser chicks have been feeding in the pond for half an hour. They snorkel for food, heads down, tails up, feet churning them forward. They dive now and then, returning to the surface with a pop. The wood ducks are gone, probably back in the swamp.

The geese are gone, too, perhaps moving to a pond across the street. They tried that two days ago, the two adults and six goslings. The gander was at street’s edge, waiting for I don’t know what. A break in the traffic, perhaps, although when he stepped off the curb that didn’t seem to be a concern.

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