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.

Posts about Nesting

Black flies and Osprey

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 9, 2014 - 12:34 PM

This morning's (Wednesday) birding column in the StarTribune (Variety section, Home and Garden pages) talks about the impact this summer of black flies on Common Loons and other birds. I do not mention Osprey in the column, my oversight. Once I thought to ask the question, this is the reply I received from Judy England, who keeps track of nesting Osprey in the metro area:

"Yes, black flies are terrible on Ospreys this year.  Both the male and female from the nest on webcam at the Arboretum left the single chick alone Saturday night for over one-half hour, just before dusk. The chick was so agitated by the flies that it edged itself over the side of the nest and died. I am watching the black flies crawl all over the adults through my scope when checking osprey nests, and their head-shaking does not cease.  Chicks are also crawling under the wings of their parents to escape the insects.  (Shaded chicks would simply sit in the shade of the adults.) Historically, they would have gotten a little reprieve in the evenings, but the mosquitoes are so horrible they are not getting a break this year."


REPORT NESTS: This note comes from the Twin Cities Osprey Watch

We have had many osprey nests fail this year and adults have left their nests. They often build "frustration nests" after a failure. I am requesting that anyone who sees new nests popping up, or adult ospreys carrying sticks in the eight-county metro area, to please report this activity to Twin Cities Metro Osprey Watch so we can identify these birds and locate new nest sites as part of our ongoing research. Please contact us at  osprey.mn@att.net 
We also have a Facebook page for more Info about metro ospreys:
And a blog at ospreywatch.blogspot.com
Sent by Vanessa Greene, Twin Cities Metro Osprey Watch


Below, an Osprey at its nest, sans flies.

Two nests, both works of art

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 6, 2014 - 11:16 AM

The first three photos below show the nest of an American Goldfinch. I found it on the ground in an apple orchard after one of our mid-June windy nights. My identification is based on information from the book “Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds” by Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison (part of the Princeton University Press Field Guide series). 


What gives me pause as I hold the nest is the intricate construction, the careful weaving of grass and hair, the plant down that pads the nest bottom. Edges are bound with spider silk in some cases. We’re looking at the bottom, top, and one side of the nest. The bottom is wound with grasses in the same fashion as a knitter winds her ball of yarn or you a ball of string. The edges are wrapped with grass threads much as a basket weaver secures her work. The nest is described in the book at a “neat and firm compact cup.” It is springy to the touch. The female finch builds this nest by herself in four to six days.


I recovered a House Wren nest a couple of years ago, removing it from a PVC nest box when the birds were finished with nesting. It was constructed of a few more than 200 sticks and pieces of grass, the twigs from an inch to six inches long. It slid out of the PVC tube intact, no moving parts. Each stick and twig was placed to create a tension that held it all together. It could be handled without damage. I photographed it, then dismantled it to count its pieces.


Some birds build rudimentary nests, a scrape in sand, a loose bundle of sticks. Wren and goldfinch nests are far more. They are works of art.


Tough time for birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 28, 2014 - 9:31 PM

Many bird species had a tough June. The frequent and heavy rains destroyed some nests and in certain cases nestlings. Some bird species had a chance to nest again. For others, biology made that impossible.

Hard hit were species nesting in wetlands or on marsh shoreline where rising water levels dislodged or covered nests. Birds nesting on or near the ground in flooded areas also lost nests, eggs, or nestlings. Wind blew nests and contents to the ground.

If loss occurred before the eggs hatched there was a chance the birds would nest again. If, however, chicks were lost, then the breeding season for the parents ended. Once eggs hatch, the reproductive system of the female bird shuts down. 

Going into the middle of June, birds simply might not have had time to start over and successfully fledge birds that would be mature enough to migrate or survive winter.

Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota said blackbirds, rails, grebes, and terns in particular were at risk from rising water levels. He pointed out that songbirds, too, faced problems if wet weather made insects hard to find. 

Birds feeding hatchlings rely heavily on insects because of their fat and protein content. Missing a couple of days of food because of heavy rains could mean chicks starve.

“This is the kind of situation,” Martell said, “where the most fit chicks survive and the weak die.”

If we’re living in weather’s new normal, and it's beginning to look that way, these losses will continue. Birds will nest as they have for millions of years, awareness of  extended extreme wind and rain a distant evolution away.

An article in the June 24 edition of The New York Times discussed content of a report about our economy in a world of “unchecked global warming.” The author, Justin Gillis, wrote that in 100 years residents of the Midwest could expect  “20 days each year in which heat and humidity make it functionally impossible for humans to be outdoors.” 

What about birds and other animals? 

What happens to birds when it is too hot and humid outdoors for humans? Is there impact on the plants and insects that provide food for birds? Do birds simply become stressed, as do we, and die? 

Certainly, the first concern is for human life, climate impact on where and how we live. And the next century is a long time from now. But whatever conditions we create for ourselves, by action or neglect, we create for animals as well. 


This Lark Bunting was photographed in South Dakota on a July day when the temperature was pushing 100 degrees. The bird was exposing as much skin as possible and panting in an effort to cool itself.



Sparrows hatching in Plymouth bedroom

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 19, 2014 - 5:10 PM

One of my grandsons is becoming surrogate father to one or more House Sparrows. This is happening Thursday afternoon. The first of three eggs he has in his room under a heat lamp is so so slowly being pried open by a very tiny, very pink bird. In one other egg the occupant has poked a hole as it begins to hatch.

I would have bet a lot of money that this would not happen.

Four days ago, Cole, who is 12, and I were checking nest boxes on my bluebird trail. House Sparrows, non-native birds that out-compete bluebirds and Tree Swallows for nesting space, are not favorites of mine. When I find a nest in one of my boxes, perhaps once a season in 40 boxes, I pull the nest out, eggs and the messy nest falling to the ground, where I leave them.

Cole asked if he could have the eggs. “Sure, they’re yours.” It’s not often that anyone gets close looks at songbird eggs. Cole is an enthusiastic birder with a love of anything alive (or dead) and outdoors. So, he took the eggs.

“Can I have the nest?” he asked. My thoughts went to bird lice before I said yes. Why not? I had no idea that he would reconstruct the nest in a box in his bedroom, find a heat lamp, and incubate the eggs. 

He called that night to tell me he had candled one of the eggs — not easy with a cream-colored egg blotched with brown — but, he said he saw the outline of a chick. He sounded excited.

These are bird lessons hard to find, and I was happy for him. He was going to be disappointed when the eggs didn’t hatch, but that’s a lesson, too.

Just after one o’clock today, Thursday afternoon, Cole’s sister Sophie called and said, “Grandpa, you have to come over and see Cole’s baby birds.”


And so I found three kids, ages 12, 8 and 6 huddling over this jury-rigged nursery, watching an incredibly small and delicate sparrow push against the shell, rest, push again, rest, that routine to continue for hours, I’m sure. You can’t buy this. I'm offering no help or direction, but will if he asks. Right now, Cole is using the Internet for answers. He is ready with meal worms as food. He has not given thought to fecal sacs, but he will.

I’ll report as this progresses. Whatever happens this will be unforgettable for these kids. And for me.

By the way, in case you wonder, Cole’s possession of eggs, nest, and now live birds is legal because House Sparrows, as non-native invasive species, are not protected. Unless you get too close to Cole’s babies.

Here is a photo of the chick making its initial appearance in the world. What you see in the opening is a wing. The eggs are about three-quarters of an inch in length. The second photo shows the bird after emerging from the egg, a process that tpok about two hours. It ate bits of meal worm an hour after that. In the second photo, the bird's head is pointed down, the end of its beak overlapping the egg on the left.


Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 4, 2014 - 12:54 PM

The female Canada Goose nesting on our pond hatched six goslings early Tuesday morning. They spent the day under her wings, moving to the water sometime this (Wednesday) morning. Mid-day Tuesday the Hooded Merganser nesting in one of our duck boxes appeared with four chicks. As soon as the geese left the platform, she and the chicks moved in. They can be seen climbing aboard in the lower left corner of the platform.


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