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Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!




Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"for every Bird a Nest"




The story of the yard in June is always a story of nesting.  I haven't been outside as much in the last two weeks as I was during migration (the heat index is over a hundred by late morning) but I have been looking out the windows, and even from limited views the nesters can be seen going to and fro or overlooking their nests from a high branch.

Some of these busy nesters remind me of a poem by Emily Dickinson in which she wonders why ("wherefore" in her archaic 19th century English) a little wren continues its search for the perfect nest spot, even though there's one in every tree:


For every Bird a Nest --
Wherefore in timid quest
Some little Wren goes seeking round --

Wherefore when boughs are free --
Households in every tree --
Pilgrim be found?   
. . . .

(click the link above for the whole poem)

Watching a pair of Brown-crested Flycatchers, I'm thinking the same thing.  Why continue the exhausting quest in search of the perfect spot (as though on some sort of pilgrimage) when there are perfectly fine nesting spots everywhere and every bird seems to be guaranteed one.  Why all the fuss, just build the nest! get on with it already!!

Really, I'm just kidding.  I love watching birds search all around for the best place to build.  They seem so human.  I can just imagine what they could be thinking.  

I'm fairly certain this is the same pair of flycatchers that so steadfastly built and tended a nest in April and May,  even though they disappointingly (at least for me) seem to have raised Bronzed Cowbirds instead of flycatchers.  Watching from the front deck for a few days last week was entertaining.  Here (photo on right) one looks over the dead cottonwood stump that has already this spring proved a successful home for European Starlings (though, really, who needs more of those to compete with our native cavity-nesters?) and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.  (The woodpeckers had chiseled out quite a few holes in the two old cottonwoods during the winter--a few in our house, too! Golden-fronted wp's are the contractors who provide housing for several species.)

Here (left) the lively brown flycatchers  flutter excitedly over the birdhouse that's already been used by Brown-crested Flycatchers for many years.  Though not a great photo, it does capture the flurry of activity as they "quest" for that perfect spot. 




Flycatchers are not the only birds on a quest for the perfect nest in our June yard. These Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, if not still searching out nesting places, are certainly searching for something.

In tall Washingtonian Palm trees they look high...

they look low....


Once called Tree Ducks, these guys favor the palms and sometimes even sit on the electrical lines.  Every day we watch them on our dock, preening and sunning themselves.  And early in the morning, before the heat is oppressive, we watch their pilgrimage.  Emily would certainly be wondering the whys and wherefores of their constant search.

The Northern Mockingbird nest in the neighbor's small Anacua tree that a few weeks ago contained a single nestling (see posts from May) was empty by early June without my seeing any newly fledged Mockingbirds. The quick glimpse I had one day of a nestling with dark feathers was too brief to say for sure it was a cowbird. 

[I'll repeat again my disclaimer about bothering nests.  It is something I am super careful about.  I don't want to  move branches to get closer looks or disturb the nesters.] 

Two weeks ago the neighbors discovered a mockingbird going in and out of the Cenizo shrub that is less than ten feet from the Anacua where the first mockingbird nest was. (Cenizo is the native "purple sage" that blooms so beautifully across the river a few days after a summer rain.  Its ashy-green foliage and soft purple blooms  decorate the wild thorny brush along the Arroyo Colorado and are often used in landscaping.)

I think this second nest, fastened like the first to  forking branches about four feet above the ground, may have been built by the mockingbird that sang day and night during the time the other pair were nesting. (See this post for a picture of that nest site.)

It surprises me that the nests are so close together.  The neighborhood gossip in me is starting to speculate.  Did the pair, to make up for the first possibly cowbird-infested nest, start a new one nearby before the cowbird had left home?  Or is this a case of Big Love (one of my favorite television shows) where one male has actually two adjacent homes and two ladies?   Hmmmm.   (I read an interesting article the other day, while throwing out old birding magazines, that cited DNA studies showing supposedly monogamous nesters sometimes having multiple mates.  Some males father broods with more than one female and sometimes eggs in one nest have more than one male parent. )

Whatever the parentage, nestled in the cup of coarse twigs, lined with finer vines and palm tree fibers, were six eggs, four of them light blue blotched with reddish brown.  According to my nest book  (Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul J. Baicich and Colin Harrison) those are indeed mockingbird eggs.  Hooray!  Unfortunately,  two more eggs were the pale blue-white of the Bronzed Cowbird. (No adult mockers were in sight, so my neighbor removed the two interloper eggs which, being tall,  he could do without touching the nest or the branches.)

A couple of days ago the eggs began hatching. The state bird of Texas, once again, is increasing in number!   And the neighborhood cats are running for cover as the Northern Mockingbirds begin their assault.  My hope is that the intense heat as well as the protective instincts of the birds will keep the cats indoors where domestic cats belong. 



I've been promising a photo of a Hooded Oriole nest and finally have one.  Woven of the finest materials, soft gold fibers from the palm tree, this is a nest I think Emily would call "of twig so fine," an achievement she guesses the wren aspires to.

On a frond of a Washingtonian (non-native) Palm tree, this nest is in the usual kind of tree for a Hooded Oriole but is not typical because it is on the top, not the underneath, side of a dried, not a green, palm frond.  The day following our discovery of the nest, high winds twisted the leaf so that the lovely little woven nest is now out of sight.  I was concerned that the winds would blow down the dried frond, but luckily it's still there, more hidden now from the marauding Bronzed Cowbirds. Woven of fibers pulled from the leaves and bark of the tree, the nest is perfectly camouflaged. 

Hooded Orioles, like Emily's nest-questers, seem always to be in search of a more perfect "household" even though every palm tree looks to my un-oriole eyes to be a perfectly good place. At least twenty palms are in--or within a short distance of--our yard, and at least two pairs of the little orioles continually fly from palm to palm.  I suspect the building of superfluous nests is a reaction to the overabundance of Bronzed Cowbirds.



I'll note just a few more of the active nests:

Another of our common nesters, Great-tailed Grackles, typically build large nests of twigs and weeds, sometimes several in the same tree or nearby trees. The one in the photo above is in our lovely blooming Retama tree.  Others are in an Ash tree and several are in two Live Oaks. The nests are usually pretty high in the trees and are apparently vulnerable to large birds of prey that fly over the yard, judging by both the fact that  Harris's Hawks have already raided a nest of young birds this spring,  and also by the reaction of adult grackles when vultures, hawks, and even gulls fly over the trees.  

The Turkey Vulture being chased by the grackle here was followed closely by a Black Vulture that was likewise harassed by the protective parents.  Male grackles don't seem to help build or sit on nests, but they do keep watch and go into action when necessary!


Curve-billed Thrashers have fledged already from the nest in the native Spanish Dagger Yucca.  You can tell this is a young bird because its spots are smaller, its bill slightly shorter, and its eye pale yellow rather than orange.  Curve-billed Thrashers have always nested in our yard and have had as many as three broods per year.  I've found their nests in several kinds of native trees including Negrito, Esperanza, and even one year in a metal Purple Martin house.  The house was no longer occupied by martins because it had become overgrown by small trees.


                                                                   
The last photo is of one of the Couches' Kingbirds that are nesting in a Live Oak tree. Their dawn song, longer and slower than their other calls and songs is one of my favorite sounds of a spring morning.

Our small Rio Grande Valley yard is filling up with more and more nests.  In such a place where "boughs are free --- / Households in every tree," our spring birds could indeed be described as a " throng -- /  Dancing around the sun." 




11 comments:

KaHolly said...

Wow, Kay! I have lots of birds building nests, many fledgelings hopping around and squawking to be fed, and the only nest I've found are the robins' nests. And last years Am. Goldfinch nest. You are the nest queen! I thoroughly enjoyed today's post and all I learned. ~karen

p.s. Your 2nd picture didn't come through!

Kay said...

Hi, Karen-
Thanks! American Robin nests are my childhood favorites. (Of course we don't have them here.) Nothing is prettier than a "robin's egg blue" robin's egg!
-Kay

Wanda said...

Loved seeing all your nesting birds. I thought the Whistling Ducks were part of a fancy birdhouse, they look like ornaments!

We have a few sets of Wrens that nest near our house in almost anything! A woodpecker created an extra "side door" in one of our bird houses and a Startling made a terrible "white mess" on a tree where they were nesting in a cavity!

...Wanda

Lori said...

We loved reading about the birds and their quest for the best nest. My favorite children's book is "The Best Nest" by P.D. Eastman. It is about a mother bird who is unhappy with her nest, but learns in the end that it is not the location of the nest that matters, but the family in it. A good lesson for all of us.

Kay said...

Wanda,
You're right--the ducks do look like humorous lawn ornaments!
Woodpeckers are good at remodeling. The birdhouse that the flycatchers are fluttering around was originally built for titmice but then the woodpeckers enlarged the hole and made it just right for the flycatchers.
Glad you dropped by!
Kay

Kay said...

Lori,
I'd forgotten about that book! It is indeed the family that makes the best nest!!

Carver said...

I enjoyed this post so much. I have a bunch of nesting boxes but even more nests built by the birds. I even pointed one out to my mailman who was requesting that I cut one of my overgrown bushes back from the mailbox. I explained that I need to wait until I'm sure the babies have left the nests. I carefully pulled back a branch and showed him the nest and he was very nice about it and said it was ok to wait. You took such great shots of the birds and nests. I find it very hard to get clear shots, particularly of the nests.

Kay said...

Carver,
This is the only clear photo I have of a nest--I usually can't see them clearly and I don't want to disturb the nests. My neighbor is tall enough to see clearly without disturbing the nest. He says there are two baby birds now. I don't know what happened to the other two eggs.

The Early Birder said...

Hi Kay. Just catching up after some time away. Enjoyed the virtual tour of the yard nest sites. With so much activity how do you get anything else done..lol.

No new nesting over hear but a few regulars visiting the feeders..the House Sparrows being the noisiest. Like me most species are hiding from the scorching sunshine. FAB.

Kay said...

Frank,
Thanks for stopping by. I'm just watching out the windows--too hot out there. Newly fledged Green Jays were on the window feeder yesterday.
K

Kay said...

Frank,
Thanks for stopping by. I'm just watching out the windows--too hot out there. Newly fledged Green Jays were on the window feeder yesterday.
K