Empty Nest Syndrome

For the last handful of years, my family has had the good fortune to have a pair of Eastern Bluebirds grace the nest box in our tiny suburban backyard. When we set up a box this spring in our new backyard (a suburban oasis I wrote about here), I feared we might not see any action this year because several dead trees on our property provide natural cavities. Typically, we see males start to check out the box for a period of days beginning in February, perching on top, fluttering their wings, and flying in and out carrying nesting material. Once a female is sufficiently impressed, she takes over all of the nest construction and egg incubation, and the male delivers food to her while she is on the nest. I only saw a bird fly into the house once or twice after we set it up, and never with nesting material, so when I peeked in the box in mid-April, I was surprised to discover not only a nest, but five gorgeous blue eggs.

Bluebird eggs (2)

Eastern Bluebirds generally lay four to six eggs which are incubated for about two weeks.

Every few days, I checked on the nest to monitor the progress of the clutch. Aside from my personal interest in the nest’s success, I had registered to monitor the nest with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, a citizen science program that provides scientists with hard-to-get data about the survival rate of backyard birds. Nestwatch scientists also visited my home recently to band some of my backyard birds so that I can monitor them and record sightings into their database. Participating in such programs is a great way to spark curiosity and excitement for birds in kids and adults alike, as well as a way to contribute valuable data that scientists can use to guide conservation measures. If you have an accessible, active nest in your yard, I encourage you to register with Nestwatch and record your observations, but do make sure to read the important nest monitoring guidelines first so that you don’t hinder the success of the nesting efforts.

010

Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Nestwatch program visited our home in April to catch and band birds for us to monitor. The program provides valuable data for scientists about backyard bird populations.

Bluebird babies take about two weeks to hatch and just another two weeks to fledge. As with all babies, they grow up way too fast—in just a blink of their sleep-deprived parents’ eyes. Every three days or so, I’d watch for the parents to fly off, then take a quick peek in the nest and snap a photo.

Baby bluebirds (1)

Newly hatched–5/3/15

Baby bluebirds (2)

Five or six days old–5/8/14

003 (2)

Getting bigger everyday–5/11/15

015 (2)

“Excuse me, could you move over a bit. It’s getting crowded in here!”–5/14/15

003 (3)

Last photo before they fledged. So shy!–5/16/15

Watching the adults bring food back to the nest was fascinating. Each afternoon after work, I sat on our front steps to enjoy the show from a distance. Mama bluebird brought back much larger prey items than Dad did, and she was also more reluctant to enter the nest box while I was watching than he was. I watched her bring various large flying insects or earthworms back to the nest on several occasions, but I rarely saw her go in. I’d take my eyes off the box for just a moment only to turn back and see her flying off out of sight. One afternoon she even brought a lizard back to the nest!

014

Daddy Bluebird was an attentive father. He brought smaller food items to the nest, but seemed to make more frequent visits.

021

The female pounded and pounded this hapless lizard on the top of the nest box! I didn’t notice until I cropped my photo that the lizard appears to have already dropped its tail—so much for that defense mechanism. I’m not sure, but I think she gave up and flew off with it rather than feed it to her young. It would have been quite a mouthful!

As the chicks neared two weeks of age, I frequently saw them poke their heads up to look out of the box.  I knew their time to fledge was approaching and hoped it wouldn’t occur the day I would be out of town for a work event. In spite of careful observation in past years, I’ve never seen the babies leave the nest, and I was hoping this year I might get lucky. When I checked the box first thing in the morning after my work trip, I was crushed to discover that the nest was empty. Not only had I missed their departure, they had chosen the first cool, stormy day in almost three weeks to do so. I looked high and low in all the surrounding areas. In my experience, baby birds typically hang around low to the ground for a day or two, or at least up in the trees in the area near the nest, but these baby bluebirds were nowhere to be found. I listened for their begging calls and could detect nothing, and I saw no sign of the parents. I worried that a snake had taken the whole clutch before they even left the nest (which is exactly the reason why birds leave the nest as soon as they are able, often when they haven’t mastered flying yet).  I worried that a predator had gotten them after they left the nest.  I worried that they had gotten wet or gotten lost and succumbed to chill. Feeling disheartened, I headed to work.

018 - Copy

The babies are almost ready to explore the world. Their heads popped up each time their parents visited. 5/15/15

When I returned home that afternoon, I immediately set myself on the front steps with my binoculars. After several minutes I saw the male fly in and grab an insect from the ground and fly off into some distant trees. Several minutes later I saw the female do the same, but I couldn’t make out where they had gone. Surely the babies weren’t that far away? Were the adults just returning to business as normal? The sinking feeling returned. Determined to know more, I watched several more minutes until the male returned to the yard again. This time as he flew off, I changed my vantage point and watched as carefully as I could with my naked eye as he landed at the top of a tremendously tall tree. I could just make out the fluttering of wings and distant begging calls. The babies were safe—and apparently very well equipped to get off the ground!  Phew!  As much as I had hoped they would hang around a little longer, I was relieved and happy to see them safe and sound—the best cure for empty nest syndrome. If I’m lucky, the parents may return to raise one more clutch before the summer is over!

023 - Copy

Empty Nester–Daddy Bluebird poses for the camera.

Note about bluebird conservation:

I’ve commented in the past that I must have walked through the first four decades of my life with blinders on not to have noticed the beauty and diversity of bird life around me, but I think that even had I been paying more attention growing up, I wouldn’t have been likely to see an Eastern Bluebird in my backyard. Eastern Bluebird populations steeply declined in the early part of the 20th century as habitat loss and competition from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made nesting holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to claim. Fortunately today, in spite of the tremendous pressures facing birds, the Eastern Bluebird seems to be doing just fine. The establishment of bluebird trails and other nest box campaigns beginning in the late 1960s helped Eastern Bluebird populations rebound by almost two percent per year between 1966 and 2010.* The success of these efforts is an important reminder that when we work collectively to make small conservation actions, we can effect significant change. So, leave those dead trees standing (60 species in N. America are cavity nesters!), or put up a nest box or two (make sure it is designed to keep out the larger non-native and more aggressive starlings). I’m doing my part!  *www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory

Backyard Buffet: Native Plants for Wildlife

DSCN6587

Native plants provide the best nectar sources for butterflies like this beautiful Monarch. In addition, many native insects can only reproduce on specific native plants.

I started this blog to celebrate our beautiful planet and the amazing diversity of life with which we share it, and hopefully, to inspire others to do the same. When we celebrate and appreciate the world around us, we want to take care of it. The effort we make, if only in our own backyard, makes a difference. Pretty soon, I will have a new backyard and with it, an incredible opportunity to create a haven for wildlife.

At the end of this year, my family will be moving to a 1.6 acre lot–a small patch of woods and open meadow along a creek. To make things even better, our property is adjacent to a large park with wooded trails and a lake. Although it is located in the same suburban neighborhood where we currently live, it feels a world away. I can’t wait to be settled in the home we are building, but more than that, I can’t wait to be settled in my own little nature sanctuary. So far, we’ve seen foxes and deer, numerous species of birds (including a resident Red-tailed Hawk), and scads of pollinating insects. One reason we have such an abundance and diversity of wildlife is the variety of native plants on the property.

DSCN6546

The leaves of Hearts-a-bursting are readily eaten by deer and rabbits, and the berries are consumed by birds.

DSCN6549

Goldenrod is a favorite of the American Goldfinch, and a number of other bird and mammal species dine on its seeds as well.

The lot we’ll soon call home has become overgrown with years of disuse, but in that disuse, it has become useful for the wildlife that shares the land with us. The meadow is covered with native grasses and wildflowers like heath aster, goldenrod, blue mistflower, and boneset, attracting many species of butterflies and birds. Splashes of jewelweed along the creek beckon the hummingbirds, and hearts-a-bursting bushes offer a bounty for woodland mammals and birds. The calls of nuthatches and chickadees resound from the tops of pines and oaks, and the dead tree that stands at the back of the property bears the marks of many woodpecker feasts. Aside from removing a few invasive exotic plants, I plan to leave the lot relatively untouched.

DSCN6593

Heath Aster is a favorite of butterflies like this Fiery Skipper.

Jewelweed

Jewelweed, which blooms in late summer and fall, helps migrating hummingbirds fatten up for their journey to Central America.

What we grow in our own backyards can profoundly affect the diversity of life around us. Non-native butterfly bushes, for example, are touted as excellent nectar plants, but cannot support the reproduction of a single species of butterfly in North America. Native plants are much better at sustaining biodiversity, which is crucial to the health of our planet and our very existence.  In contrast, the typical American yard, comprised of tidy, mowed grass and non-native flowering plants and shrubs, provides very little benefit to wildlife and actually does harm to the environment. Here are a few facts about lawns that may surprise you:

  • Lawn grasses are not native to the North American continent and make poor habitat for wildlife.
  • Lawn grasses and exotic (non-native) plants reduce or eliminate insects available for insectivorous birds, as well as for other birds when they are feeding nestlings.
  • Acre for acre, the American lawn receives four times as much chemical pesticide as any U.S. farmland, killing an estimated seven million birds each year.
  • Phosphorus runoff from lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms that suck oxygen out of our waterways, killing aquatic life.
  • During summer months, as much as 60% of municipal water usage goes to lawns. (In a time when much of our nation is facing catastrophic drought, water is a resource we should be using wisely.)
015

Blue Mistflower produces dense flower clusters and covers the ground with a matt of leaves. I’ll take this over a traditional lawn any day!

Plants and animals share a profound connection. Plants provide food and clean air to breath, as well as sustain wildlife. Wildlife, in turn, offers a number of tangible and invaluable services to people–such as pollination, seed dispersal, pest control, and sanitation. We can’t afford to be careless about protecting our earth and the life we share it with.  We are currently living during the “sixth mass extinction,” the greatest extinction period since dinosaurs were wiped off the planet, so we can’t act too soon.

So, start with your own backyard–it needn’t be large to make a difference! Add some beautiful native plants to your landscape that will attract more butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. Learn more about backyard wildlife sanctuary certification programs in your area, and have your yard certified as an example for others. You’ll be doing yourself and the earth a favor. In the wise words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  _____________________________________________________________________

An incredible and beautiful book about the connections between native plants and healthy ecosystems is Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home.

Many states have native plant societies which can help you learn more about the best plants to grow in your area. To learn about native plants in Georgia, including the best places to buy them, check out the Georgia Native Plant Society.

A wonderful blog about gardening with native plants is The Humane Gardener.

 

 

The Right Place for a Robin

Today I had another one of those moments where the universe put me in the right place at the right time. I had spent the better part of the week conducting a professional development workshop for teachers, training them how to use birding and ornithology to teach science concepts and integrate them with other courses. These workshops, which take place over the course of four days and three nights at a North Georgia state park, are lots of fun, but intense, starting with a bird walk at 7:00 AM and ending with a documentary about birds at 8:00 PM. One of the highlights of the workshop was taking a bird walk with a few of the teachers during our afternoon break and seeing a fledgling Blue-headed Vireo hidden among some low branches, an unexpected gift we would have completely missed had we not heard its faint begging calls and paused to take a closer look. You’d think after four days of doing little but looking at and talking about birds, I would have had my fill of birds for a little while, but luckily for another little fledgling, this wasn’t so.

023

Fledgling Blue-headed Vireo

At the conclusion of the workshop, I drove over to my parents’ mountain house about an hour away to spend the night with my parents and my two children, who were spending the week with their grandparents and attending day camp. The next afternoon, while running an errand with my parents at the grocery store, I noticed the sound of birds chittering above the parking lot. When I looked up swallows were circling. Nearby, more than 25 Barn Swallows were perched on the roof of the building, and several nests were tucked up under the eaves. Since we needed to hurry back to pick up the kids from camp, I couldn’t spend a lot of time observing, but I did snap a quick photo of some nestlings before leaving.

079

Barn Swallow nestlings

In the evening, as I passed by the grocery store on my drive back to Atlanta, I decided to pull in for one last look at the swallows before making the drive home to go to work the next day. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I noticed a small fluttering movement in the shrubbery along the side of the road. Unable to resist the temptation to have a peek at what I assumed to be a fledgling, I decided to pull over to have a look. A baby American Robin was flapping its wings while the parents circled and called anxiously, but the bird didn’t seem to be able to move. When I stepped closer to have a look, I saw that the poor bird had his foot tangled in some thread that was snagged on a bush.

photo 1 (1)

Fledgling American Robin caught on a bush

photo 4

Removing the thread

Fortunately, a nice clerk inside the grocery store loaned me a pair of scissors, and once I relocated the baby (who at this point must have been following his parents’ orders to stay stone still), I quickly cut the thread that was caught on the bush. Removing the tangled thread from the bird’s foot was more complicated as it was tightly wound around the bird’s ankle and toes, and I worried that the constriction may have caused injury. The bird’s parents flew about making a fuss, but the baby was quiet and didn’t struggle. I think he knew I was helping. Fortunately, once the baby was freed, he was able to perch in the nearby tree where I gently placed him. The parents immediately flew over, as did a Gray Catbird, who must have wondered what all the racket was about.

photo 3 (1)

Back where he belongs!

As I mentioned in my previous post, birding forces us to slow down and be attentive to our surroundings, be they nests hidden under the eaves of a grocery store or a small flutter or call from a nearby bush. Even when the birds aren’t cooperating, being outdoors with a birder’s frame of mind will bring unexpected and incredible discoveries and gifts. I guess you could say that baby robin was lucky that I drove by with my eyes open for birds, but I’m the one that was richly rewarded.

**This experience serves as a good reminder of the importance of not littering, even when we think that an item is small, harmless, and/or biodegradable. Sadly, far too many animals suffer needlessly or die slowly and painfully by becoming ensnared or stuck in our castaway items like six-pack rings, fishing line, aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc. Marine life suffers when they ingest trash like balloons, plastic bags, and other disposable plastic items. Please dispose of trash responsibly.

Hot Winter Nights

Winter is a great time for viewing wildlife. Even in the cold, gray, wet weather that makes many of us cringe and stay indoors, much of the animal world stays active, and the absence of leaves on the trees makes wildlife easier to spot, especially birds. Some animals aren’t hindered by winter’s chill at all, instead finding it the perfect climate to “turn up the heat.” Believe it or not, winter is the best time of the year to observe several species of raptors that begin courtship and breeding even during the coldest and darkest months.

The Great Horned Owl is one of the earliest breeders in North America, beginning courtship calls as early as October and choosing a mate by December. The male attracts the female’s attention by puffing up his white throat and hooting while bowing to her. If the female is sufficiently impressed, she joins in the bowing and hooting, and the birds may remain mates for their entire lives. Breeding typically occurs in January or February with females laying one to four eggs that hatch in about seven weeks. Now is the best time of year to get out and look for these birds, particularly while the bare tree branches make it easier to spot their nests, which are often taken over from hawks, crows, or squirrels. In fact, here in Georgia these owls have already been spotted on their nests, used only when the females are brooding eggs and tending to their young. Be sure to look for the two ear tufts popping out from the top.

Great horned owl

photo: Jim Wilson

Great Horned Owls are not the only owls getting “busy” this season. Barred Owls also begin reuniting with their mates and refurbishing or scouting for nest sites in the cold months of winter. I’ve been hearing the local pair of Barred Owls hooting it up in my neighborhood for the past month, and I have been fortunate to see them roosting together in our neighborhood park the past two winters. I will be keeping my eyes peeled again this season! At AWARE wildlife center where I volunteer, our pair of nonreleasable Barred Owls, Gazer and Tappy, have become increasingly vocal.  As is typical in the wild, Tappy offers food to Gazer, and they are frequently seen preening each other. Gazer must be impressed with Tappy’s attention–she laid her very first egg in late fall (though did not incubate it)!

???????????????????????????????

My local Barred Owls roosting together last February.

???????????????????????????????

AWARE’s educational owls Gazer and Tappy are frequently seen preening each other.

Bald eagles are also early breeders, typically building their nests and laying eggs by mid-February, even earlier in southern states. (During a recent trip to Florida, I saw two bald eagles on their nests on New Year’s Eve!) Eagle’s nests, usually made of sticks and other plant material and found in big trees near large bodies of water, are the largest nests of any bird in North America. These enormous structures can measure over nine feet in diameter and twenty feet in height and can weigh more than two tons! A pair of eagles will typically use the same nest for many successive years. Eagles have a spectacular courtship ritual involving vocalizations and acrobatic flights that sometimes include a spiraling freefall from great heights with interlocked talons. What a thrill it would be to see this amorous display!

DSCN2850 - Copy

Bald Eagle on a nest in Cedar Key, Florida — 12/31/13

Red-tailed hawks are also getting ready to breed at this time of year by building or refurbishing their nests of twigs, foliage, and other plant matter. Eggs are typically laid in March or April, depending on latitude. Like eagles, Red-tailed Hawks have dramatic aerial courtship displays. The male and female soar in circles calling with their unmistakable shrill, raspy cries. The male dives steeply then rises again, repeating this display several times. The display sometimes culminates with the pair clasping talons and plummeting in a spiral toward the ground before pulling away. Because Red-tailed Hawks are possibly the most common hawks in North America and are well-adapted to living in proximity to humans, careful observers are sure to be rewarded with sightings of these beautiful birds.

Witnessing these powerful birds is a reminder of what an incredibly diverse and magical planet we share. For those inclined to stay indoors in the winter months, several websites with live “nest cams” offer viewers the unique opportunity to watch these birds building nests, brooding eggs, and raising young in real time (see below for links), but how much more fascinating it is to witness it in person! So, before the leaves obscure the treetops, bundle up, grab a pair of binoculars, and keep your ears open and eyes toward the skies!

Recommended Nest Cams:

Watch Georgia’s beloved Berry College Eagles raise their young for the third year in a row. Mom is already incubating two eggs! Or check out the Atlanta Falcons (Peregrine, that is!).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a trove of all sorts of information about birds and has nestcams for several species of birds. Tune in to this year’s livestream cameras here.

My Eco-centric Evolution

I’ve always liked nature and being outside. I was lucky to have a lot of opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation while growing up (hiking, skiing, team sports, camping, kayaking), and I still get out and stay active. My college years at the University of Vermont instilled a strong sense of environmental responsibility in me, but my career path (teaching) didn’t lead me outdoors. While all of these experiences helped to shape me, I ultimately credit an injured baby chipmunk for starting me on my journey to a living a life more connected with nature.

DSC05313

A catalyst…

About four years ago in my late thirties, I was having an early “mid-life crisis” of sorts. Like many people, I was feeling like my best years and opportunities were behind me. A homemaker with a devoted, hard-working husband who regularly travels for work, I was filling my time with meeting the demands of the household, chairing PTA fundraisers at my children’s schools, volunteering at a cat shelter, and other activities. My children, then six and eight, were both in school full-time, but I was reluctant to return to a demanding career teaching high school English. Lacking a satisfying professional or creative outlet, I was most definitely feeling lost and depressed.

One afternoon, one of our indoor cats slipped outside when one of the kids left the porch door open. I only noticed the cat had escaped when motion out the window caught my eye and I turned to see her batting a ball of fur. The tiny chipmunk seemed stunned, but unscathed when I raced out and rescued it from the cat, but as night was falling, I decided to keep it safe overnight to make certain it was okay. In the morning, the chipmunk was most definitely NOT okay (cat saliva is toxic), so I quickly searched the internet for a wildlife rescue. I stumbled upon Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) and called to ask if they’d take the chipmunk. Driving to the center with the suffering creature on my lap, I decided I’d ask to volunteer and learn how to rehabilitate wildlife myself, if they would have me. Animals have always been an important part of my life, and I thought learning to work with wildlife might lift me out of the funk I’d been in.

Finding AWARE changed my life. Caring for wildlife that has been injured or orphaned by human activity makes me feel like I’m playing a small role in restoring the balance between people and wildlife. In addition, developing and presenting education programs about wildlife and conservation while working with our non-releasable wildlife ambassadors (raptors, bobcats, skunks, crows, an opossum, a snake, etc.) has taught me a tremendous amount about animals, ecology, and the environment. My experiences at AWARE have motivated me to earn my wildlife rehabilitator’s license and to seek knowledge in related fields. Rehabilitating birds, for example, compelled me to attend a weekend of workshops to learn more about songbirds and raptors. That weekend made an avid birder out of me. I’ve since joined my local Audubon chapter on several bird walks in my area. Last year, I learned to identify over 150 new bird species, and my yard list (number of species seen) is up to 45!                      

023

Teaching high school students about wildlife

Going beyond birds and mammals, the Master Naturalist class I recently completed brought to light the interconnectedness of all living things. During one class, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Haskell spoke about The Forest Unseen, which details the year he spent observing a one-meter patch of forest near his Tennessee home. Our instructor then challenged us to spend time sitting quietly in our own backyards and noting our impressions every day for a week. If a tiny patch of forest could inspire a prize-winning book about the wonders of nature, I was determined to find inspiration in my yard too! I discovered, indeed, that nature constantly offers up gifts if we stop and pay attention — the music of birdsong filling the air, the shade of a leafy canopy, the amusing antics of squirrels, the allure of the moon. Although I’d never thought my small suburban yard was particularly special, I gained a new appreciation for it that week. We can all tune in to the natural world as a source of comfort, inspiration, amazement, reflection, happiness, humor, energy, calm… We need only to step outside, or even just look out the window, and look closely at our surroundings.

DSCN7505 - Copy

Squirrels can be very amusing.

So this is my mission — to be aware of the wonders found right outside my door and to do my part to take care of them. Hopefully, others will be inspired to do the same. The Senegalese poet Baba Djoum wisely said, “In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” The more I learn, the more my family tries to live responsibly and healthfully in a way that honors and conserves our planet. My family has adapted to my quirks – like pulling recyclable items out of trash cans and making our own toothpaste – and we’ve given up straws, juice boxes, new plastic bags, and other disposable items (more on these things to come!). We are FAR from perfect, but we are making a start. If we can inspire even a few people, and they inspire a few others, and so on, we will begin to see a significant change. We can do it! Hope you’ll join me in leading an eco-centric life!