Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
House Wrens have nested in our yard for the past 10 years, using our nest boxes. Some years we’ve had two pair. I sat with a camera the other day watching what I presume was a male wren work on his nest. Male wrens will begin more than one nest, allowing the female of the pair to choose the site to be completed. I think this nest was nearing completion; the bird was carrying bits of grass and rootlets (see photo) to the nest, materials used to form the cup at nest bottom. This is a PVC box four inches in diameter. Last year the nest built by a wren slid complete from the box when I did fall housecleaning. Tension of interwoven sticks held the nest together. After photographing it I took it apart to count the sticks: 206 of lengths from about one inch to six inches. How to build a nest is instinctive for the bird. Unlike say a robin nest, most of which resemble one another, wren nests vary in style. I’ve seen nests open at the top. I’ve seen one where the entry tunnel spiraled down to the cup, like a spiral stairway. That nest was an engineering marvel. Nests must vary depending on the cavity used (wrens are always cavity nesters). But, does an individual wren build generally the same style nest each time? How does the bird select the sticks used? Search out a stick of a particular dimension for a particular use? Pick a stick at random, then see how to make it work once in the nest? I’ve never seen a wren reject a stick brought to the nest. Perhaps that’s why some nests are so jammed into the box that room for the hen and babies is surprising. The nest in the photo, the one I disassembled, was a work of art, another engineering marvel. I doubt if any human could have taken those sticks and made that nest.
Killdeer often build their nests -- little more than a scrape -- in gravel or on open soil. This one chose to use wood shavings surrounding a tree trunk. Can you find the eggs? The camo is pretty good.
Young Great Horned Owls I’ve been watching apparently are old enough to leave the nest, although they haven’t looked that way to me. The birds pictured are an adult and one of her owlets in their nest at Westwood Hills Nature Center. There were/are two chicks. One left the nest Tuesday. The photo was taken Wednesday morning. In one shot here the young bird is stretching a wing, making primary flight feathers visible (adult peering over wing). The feathers appear half developed or less. The pair of young owls I was watching in a nest near Long Lake left their nest seven days ago. They looked very similar to the one pictured. They know best, obviously.
We recently spent a few days (pre-flood) near Lutsen on the Lake Superior shore. While birding I came across a small chunk of flat rock near shore and just below a cliff. The cliff edge offered excellent viewing of Herring Gulls nesting atop the rock.
Some birds were sitting on eggs, others were tending chicks. The chicks were about the size of chickens a week after you bought them for Easter (never a good idea). I've seen gull chicks before, in Alaska. They were gray and fuzzy, like these chicks, but two-thirds adult size.
Herring Gulls are hardly unusual birds in Minnesota, particularly along the Lake Superior shore, but in all my years of watching this was the first time I've seen nests, eggs, and chicks. The property owner, very gracious in allowing me access to her yard, told me that eagles sometimes visited the gull colony, eating eggs and/or flying away with chicks. Not to wish the gulls trouble, but I hoped to see an eagle give it a try while I stood by with camera. I made two visits the day I took the photos. On the second visit I missed the eagle action by about 30 seconds. I got to my viewing site just in time to watch four gulls hazing the eagle as it flew west down the shore.
The eagle's presence had lifted the hens off their eggs, however, giving me a chance to photograph the eggs. The birds would occasionally rise from the nest to turn the eggs, but never gave me a good look while doing so. The eggs are deeply colored and marked with random spots of camouflage, as you'd expect for birds nesting in the open. The nests I could see had three eggs each, the maximum expected. Chicks hatch after 30 days of incubation. Parents share that duty. I hoped to see the chicks fed, but was off the gull schedule -- feeding about every four hours. The chicks will be fed by parents until about 12 weeks old. Gulls are known to feed in garbage dumps. Chicks fed garbage pay a price for a bad meal, growth slowing. Adults will continue to feed their offspring for as long as 12 to 15 weeks.
Gulls look like they lead an easy life, lots of loafing and what seems to be aimless coming and going. However: The chances of eggs surviving to hatch are about 8 in 10 (Bald Eagles took eggs and chicks from this colony). Hatched chicks have five to seven chances in 10 to fledge. Fledglings are 50/50 to make it through the first four years, when breeding is possible. First-year breeders are seven to 10 to make it to the next breeding season. Herring Gulls can live in the wild until 30 years old or so, if they can make it through what seems to be a tough beginning.
Here are photos of the gull colony.
We live 14.4 miles west of the Guthrie Theatre. I use that measurement as a reference point for our neighborhood, which is within walking distance of a Caribou coffee shop. Less than a mile west of our backyard a pair of Sandhill Cranes have hatched a chick. This might be the second successful nesting out here this year. I have to check with the landowners who last year watched a pair of cranes raise two chicks; I believe those birds returned, and perhaps are nesting again. Until last year, I had no idea that cranes were nesting here, or would even consider it. This is very cool, and very heartening. There are remnants of wildness around us. The photo is of last year's crane family.
(Regarding the sandpipers being seen at Wirth Lake in the large muddy area just off Glenwood Avenue, the White-rumped Sandpiper was not seen this morning, but a Semi-palmated Plover was present along with Least Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers.)
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