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.
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.)
When someone asked me last week what is appropriate placement habitat for Eastern Bluebird nest boxes I told him large expanses of grass – meadows, pastures, golf courses, road edges, maybe a yard if it was big enough. There are exceptions to everything. Our back yard is smallish, surrounded by trees, containing trees, backed by a small pond that soon becomes a wooded swamp. It is as unlike the golf course where I tend bluebird nest boxes as can be. I was surprised then, four weeks ago, when a pair of bluebirds spent two days here, investigating a box at pond edge that I had placed for chickadees. Those birds disappeared, and that was not a surprise. I believe I refound the pair yesterday in a most unlikely place: they’re carrying nesting material to a cavity in a tree in our swamp, inches from the pond edge. Bluebirds are cavity nesters, using trees before there were power poles or fence poles, and then choosing those when cavities were available. Bluebirds don’t carve out their own cavities; their bills are not intended for heavy work. Instead, they rely on woodpecker construction or natural decay of wood. This is the first time I’ve seen bluebirds in a natural cavity. And it certainly is the first time I’ve seen these birds in a wooded swamp many feet from grass or dry land. In the photo, the male bluebird is circled above, the nest location circled below. We’ll watch this with interest.
NOTE: One day after writing the post below, about the hatch of eight Hooded Merganser chicks, we saw this morning 11 chicks with the merganser hen. I assume they hatched hours later than their siblings, exited the box on instinct, and somehow became united with the rest of the family.
The female Hooded Merganser nesting in one of our duck boxes was restless yesterday. She was out of the box and on the pond several times, drinking, bathing, idling. I didn't know the exact date she began incubation, so I could do no more than estimate hatch time. Yesterday seemed about right, and the hen's actions fit with that guess. I watched the box closely yesterday, hoping to photograph the hatchlings leaving the box. I resumed watch this morning, but was observing from our deck when I heard the first plop. The sound was made by the seventh of the eight ducklings that left the box to begin life on the water. I watched the last of the brood drop, but not through a camera lens. The merganser led her babies around the pond once, then took them back into the swamp water behind our pond. The ducklings swam more like water bugs than birds, and drank and bathed. They following their mother as if tied to her by string. The geese that hatched here picked up and left after a few days. We hope this brood stays here for longer than that. The first photo shows the hen as she returned to the nest box yesterday afternoon (Thursday). The second photo shows the family this morning minutes after the birds left the box.
The nest of a Baltimore Oriole fell from its tree in Sunday's wind. I found it on the ground on some land I routinely bird. This is a nest from last year; orioles have yet to return to Minnesota this spring. It had hung from a branch in a large willow tree. I did some reading on these nests. They are built almost exclusively by the female bird. It takes her from one to two weeks to complete the job. Flexible plant, animal, and sometimes human-made fibers form the outer shell, put in place first. Fibers tie the nest to anchor branches. Springy fibers are next woven into that framework to shape the sac-like nest. Downy fibers line the pocket. The material is gathered one piece at a time. Orioles are known to fly as far at a quarter mile one way to find appropriate building material. The photos show you the intricate and complex construction better than I could describe it. There must be hundreds of fibers in the nest. Consider how far the bird flew during contruction as it gathered nesting material. If she averaged no more than 50 yards per flight, one way, one fiber would be 100 yards, 52 fibers would be a mile, 520 fibers would be 50 miles. A nest like this is not only a work of art, but also simply work. A new nest is built each year.
A Canada Goose pair are nesting beside the swampy pond in our backyard. Last year a pair of geese built a nest atop a crude nesting platform I had anchored mid-pond. Seven days into incubation the pair left five eggs exposed, flying off and not returning for five cool days and cold nights. They returned -- the returnees looked like the nesters -- just after I had taken the eggs from the nest, assuming they were no longer viable. I broke one egg, using a knife point to tease the embryo from the yolk sac. A photo of that is below. Development of the gosling was proceeding at a rapid pace. The goose would have been on the nest for about 28 days to complete incubation. Counting begins with the laying of the final egg. The photo shows development then of about 25 percent. This year a nest was constructed in long grass and brush on the far side of the pond. The bird (photo) began incubation on March 31. One day the bird was busy with construcrtion, two days later she was sitting. Eggs are laid at approximately 35-hour intervals. Usual count would be two to eight eggs. I have no idea how many are in this nest. The nest appears vulnerable to mammal predation, but I assume the geese know more about nesting than I do.
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