Nesting House Wrens

House Wren

House wrens are a small bird, abundant in the Americas, with a divine melodious song and elegant markings. They have numerous loveable aspects, but what is endlessly amusing and curious are the many places they choose to nest.

 

Since they are unable to dig their own cavity, they take up residence in all sorts of places.

 

Last week, while visiting Wisconsin, we found a pair of house wrens nesting in the base of an old basketball hoop.

 

Athena found the nest while photographing other birds, many of whom had nesting activity in my cousin’s rural yard. The bluebirds were tirelessly feeding their chicks, the barn swallows were doing the same; both in conspicuous nest boxes and easy to see.

 

Contrastingly, the house wren was quietly perched near an old rusty basketball post. Only one blade of dried grass could be seen. But every few minutes this clever bird would vanish under the rusty dome.

 

House wren with nest

House wrens are known for their creative nests. Small birds less than five inches (13 cm) long, they squeeze their little bodies and build a nest in some of the oddest places–old boots, abandoned cars, traffic lights.

 

A contemporary of John James Audubon wrote he found the house wren in “…olive jars, boxes, and … the hollow of trees.”

 

Audubon, too, found the house wren entertaining and “extremely pleasing.” He dedicated a drawing in his famous book to the house wren. Plate 83 in Birds of America, published 1827-1838, depicts Troglodytes aedon nesting in an old hat.

House Wren drawing by John James Audubon. Plate 83. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Audubon’s house wren observations here.

 

This common songbird can be found throughout the Americas, from central Canada down to the southern tip of South America. See map below.

 

They have many predators (cats, rats, squirrels, owls, and more), but regardless of their vulnerability and diminutive size, house wrens are the most widely distributed bird in the Americas. They often brood two clutches (group of eggs) in a season, and lay from 3-10 eggs per clutch.  More info here. 

 

See the grass tucked up under the rusty dome?

A resourceful bird with a heavenly voice, the house wren has been building nests and breeding for centuries, lighting up the surprised faces of humans, and filling the air with sweet music.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Postcards of America

On this Memorial Day weekend, I share with you some of the beauty of America.

Dairy Farm, Mayville, Wisconsin

 

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, California

 

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

 

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Joshua Tree National Park, California

 

Pronghorn, Great Basin, Nevada

 

Moose in Aspen Grove, Alaska

 

Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

 

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali National Park, Alaska

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Texas Longhorn

 

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Snow geese, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California

 

Space Needle, Seattle, Washington

 

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

 

Denali, Alaska

 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Big Horn Sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Wood Duck, male, Calif.

 

Roadrunner, California

 

 

Bobcat, Point Reyes, California

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Maui, Hawaii

 

Big Sur, California

 

 

Redwood Forest, Humboldt County, California

 

Cypress Swamp, Jesse Jones Park, Houston, Texas

 

Alligator, Sanibel Island, Florida

 

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

 

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Let the Nesting Begin

Western Bluebird (male)

I’m always on the look-out for bird nests at this time of year. They’re all over, you just have to be in tune–the country or city, trees or eaves.

 

So far we have found five nests on our property: bushtits, violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, oak titmice, and pacific-slope flycatchers.

Bushtit

It takes some time to find a bird nest; it should, that’s the nature of a nest. How crafty the adult is at hiding the nest, and then keeping it a secret, is directly contingent upon the survival of the young, and ultimately the success of the species.

 

For the bushtits, it was a treasure hunt. One day I noticed they were a pair. Gregarious birds, they are always in flocks of about a dozen, except in spring when they pair off for breeding.

 

After that, I started noticing they were nearby several times a day, not just their once-a-day fly-through. Then I watched with binoculars and saw one had caught a worm and instead of gobbling it up, the bird carried it off.

 

Soon after, we followed the little fluffball as it disappeared into a manzanita bush. Bingo — we found a pocket of lichen in the center of the bush. You can see how hidden it is.

Bushtit nest (in center)

 

If you’re interested in attracting nesting birds, there are many things you can do, especially providing: food, water, shelter, safety. The main thing: be attentive.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Info about nest boxes:

National Wildlife Federation, Nesting, U.S.

Nestbox Info and Books, England

 

As for finding nests, start watching bird behavior and you’ll be amazed how busy they are.

How to Nest Watch

How to Find a Nest, Canada

 

Good book (U.S.) with bird nest specifics: Peterson Field Guides, Birds’ Nests

 

This year and last, our neighbors lamented there were no more swallows in the area. What happened to the swallows? they said.

 

I grinned. We have them swooping overhead, all day every day, from March to June.

 

Here’s a previously written post about their nesting: Violet-green Swallows.

 

Every spring the violet-green swallows and  western bluebirds have a few weeks of territorial chest-thumping before they choose their respective houses.

 

Bluebird at nest box

 

The oak titmouse is always “our” very first songbird to nest. This year they found a cozy spot inside an old tree snag.

Oak Titmouse

It is for this reason that we keep some dead trees standing–they are a wealth of life regardless of how dead they look.

 

Oak Titmouse Nest Site (round hole toward top of snag)

The pacific-slope flycatchers migrate up every spring from Mexico. We have hosted so many generations of this bird that I could write their family tree.

 

A post I wrote about them: Generations of Flycatchers.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest. Nest materials are same debris as on roof.

Many people don’t have big yards to provide nest spots. I like this story from fellow-blogger Helen at Tiny Lessons Blog. She helped engage the community in providing a new nesting place for the osprey at her local salt marsh: the fundraising efforts and the new nest.

 

What a wonderful thing to live where birds continue to reproduce. And there are so many ways to view the chicks, whether it’s in your yard, a community park, or from your computer via live cams.

 

It’s a sweet reminder of the joy of life.

 

Parent Pacific-slope Flycatcher with a lot to sing about

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Big Sur, California

Highway 1 vista, Big Sur California

Big Sur is a region of coastal central California. Originally named by the Spanish, it translates as “the big south,” and anyone exploring it experiences the vastness.

 

It is an endless pleasure to live relatively close to Big Sur. We take road trips every few years, visit favorite spots, and try new ones, too.

Highway 1, California

It is a popular tourist destination. The only road, Highway 1, winds through the mountains along the jagged Pacific Coast, taking Big Sur visitors past sparkling ocean vistas and miles of protected, undeveloped land.

 

Although opinions differ about what exactly is Big Sur, it is generally thought of as the  Highway 1 area between Monterey and San Simeon, an expanse of about 80-100 miles (129-161 km). There are forests and parks inland too.

 

The Big Sur coast is the “longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the [contiguous] United States.” (Wikipedia). More Big Sur info here.

 

For centuries this area remained undeveloped. The rugged Santa Lucia Mountains rendered the coast inaccessible, isolated.

Black-crowned Night-Heron foraging in kelp. Point Lobos, CA

But eventually the highway was built among the precarious, ever-moving mountains; completed in 1937. Convicts built it.

 

Some part of the highway is almost always closed, due to rock or mud slides. There is a section closed now, a result of recent storms. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge collapsed. (See photos at the end.) If you are planning a trip, look up road closures here.

 

McWay Falls, Big Sur

 

Northern Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas

 

Pebble Beach Golf Course, 6th hole. Photo: B. Gagnon. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Some of the frequently visited spots include coastal towns like Monterey and Carmel, and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

 

Golfers take to Pebble Beach, and families descend on Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Map of Big Sur

May of Hwy 1, Big Sur. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In between these human places lie pristine beaches loaded with elephant seals;  migrating whales cruise by, and the cool, coastal waters are abundant with marine mammals.

 

There are also many bird species including the critically endangered California Condor.

California Condor, Calif.

Wild iris

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite place to go is Point Lobos. It is a state nature reserve with trails, wildlife, an underwater marine sanctuary, and dynamic tide pools.

 

Point Lobos, California

Here’s a post I wrote about Point Lobos.

 

We often spend about two days exploring Point Lobos and then we’re back on the road again, heading south down the coast. I’ve enjoyed many boat rides on the Monterey Bay, too.

 

Harbor Seals

Each day is usually a long one, with many different adventures. The wind off the Pacific can be strong, and there’s often fog.

 

Cambria coast, California

Whatever we did that day, at the end of it, when I finally close my eyes and the sea sounds start to fade, I find I’m giddy about what the new day will bring.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Rock slide on Hwy 1, 1994. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 has been closed and condemned due to damage from storms in Big Sur, Calif. on Wednesday, March, 8, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

 

The third and final span of the condemned Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge came down Wednesday. (Photo courtesy Caltrans)

Hwy. 1, Big Sur. March, 2017. Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge taken down after collapse. Photo The Mercury News. mercurynews.com

 

The Basilisk Lizard

Basilisk Lizard, Costa Rica

Gliding on a pontoon boat down the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica, we were literally focusing on birds when a unique lizard completely surprised us. I had never seen this phenomenon before, and I have never seen it since.

 

The lizard, the common basilisk, lives in the rainforests of Central and South America near rivers and streams.

Tarcoles River, cattle egret

Earlier, we had been hiking and birding the jungle of Carara National Park. The heat was extreme, humidity was high, and the mosquitoes were thick.

 

By late afternoon the earth had cooled down, wildlife were out, and we were quietly and slowly cruising through the mangrove swamp. The slight breeze produced by the boat was heavenly.

Boat-billed Heron

We came across nesting boat-billed herons, and a bountiful array of birds including macaws eating almonds and toucans hidden in the branches.

Crocodile

Birds and crocodiles continued with their endeavors as we peacefully floated by.

 

Suddenly there was a splashing commotion and in a flash this lizard skittered across the surface of the water.

 

How does a lizard run on top of water?

 

I had previously seen this trick of the “Jesus Lizard” on nature programs. They stand upright in the water on their two hind legs, and streak across the water’s surface.

 

A  small reptile with numerous predators, they turn on their racing legs when threatened. It wasn’t a busy river and our pontoon boat had scared him.

Basilisk lizard, Tarcoles River

Basiliscus basiliscus have wide-webbed feet with scaly fringes that expand when they hit the surface of the water. While the front legs remain upright and motionless, the back legs hit the water, creating a pocket of underwater air that supports the lightweight reptile. Simultaneously, their feet are essentially water-pedaling, pushing outward in a way that  balances the lizard.

 

The one we saw was about 12″ long (30 cm) with an additional 8″ (20 cm) of tail. That’s him in the first photo. Doesn’t look like he can fly across water, does he?

 

How far can they run on top of the water?

 

We were in a shallow river with natural sand bars, logs, and downed trees; he ran a distance of about 15 feet (4.5 m).

Basilisk Lizard in Belize

But they can go further. Wikipedia says the smaller basilisk lizards can run atop the water’s surface for about 32-64 feet (10-20m). It also says they can run up to 7 mph (11 km/h). Wikipedia info.

 

Short science video of running basilisk.

 

I love all lizards, but the basilisk is right there in my top five.

 

All photos:  Athena Alexander

Osprey with fish, Tarcoles River

 

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Tarcoles River

Basalisk lizard in Belize

Location of Costa Rica

Costa Rica. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Red-billed Tropicbirds at Little Tobago Island

Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island

The small and uninhabited island of Little Tobago in the West Indies was our destination for observing rare close-up views of red-billed tropicbirds.

Little Tobago Island jetty

Red-billed tropicbirds nest on this island for 6-8 weeks. After the chicks are born they return to sea. Primarily a white bird with black eye markings, they are about 19 inches (48 cm) long. Their long streamer tail is unmistakable.

View from Little Tobago Observation Deck

There are few chances to ever see a tropicbird. As seabirds, they live and hunt on the ocean. Although they nest on land, if you are in one of the nesting venues, the birds are usually far away on a cliff and about the size of a pinhead.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Little Tobago Island (female)

We took a 20-minute boat ride to the island.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Little Tobago Island has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1926, and is home to numerous nesting seabird colonies. It hosts 50 species of native birds.

 

Nesting Red-billed Tropicbird hiding

Anyone going to Little Tobago Island requires a permit, and there are no facilities (no food, water, or bathrooms).

 

Once we walked through the tropical forest and up the muddy trails, we observed numerous bird species from the observation deck–gulls and noddies, shearwaters, brown boobies, and a peregrine falcon. Plenty of frigatebirds too–another of my favorite seabirds.

 

Our guide, in his jocular Caribbean accent, explained the deck had been built for the making of a David Attenborough film in 1990. Compared to the rest of the island with impenetrable jungle growth and abandoned buildings, the deck was well-maintained, sturdy, and boasted a sweeping, unobstructed view of the ocean.

Frigatebird (left) chasing Red-billed Tropicbird (center)

The film, he told us, was entitled “The Trials of Life,” and David Attenborough had visited here to narrate Episode 3. They had filmed the red-billed tropicbirds and highlighted the birds’s challenge in feeding the chicks.

 

The tropicbird parents gather fish in their mouths to take back to the nest for the chick, but are often attacked by frigatebirds. Sometimes the frigatebird will violently pluck out the tropicbird’s streamer tail, or accost the bird in other ways. They don’t care about the bird, they just want the mouthful of food.

 

Click here for YouTube David Attenborough Episode 3 at Little Tobago Island.  It is a few minutes of footage at the end.

 

I knew about the tropicbirds, the frigatebirds, and their ongoing war. But my interest was suddenly piqued by the other topic.

“So David Attenborough was here?” I asked.

 

The guide nodded.

 

“Right where we’re standing?”

 

He nodded again.

 

I heard him say the tail feathers grow back, but after that I unknowingly tuned out his words. Instead, I looked around at the deck, dazzled by David Attenborough being here.

 

Soon we descended the trail.

 

I muttered, “David Attenborough was on these steps” and “David Attenborough went down this trail.” Between the crashing sea, strong winds, and squawking birds, no one heard me. Well, no one responded. I might’ve been going on a bit too much about it.

 

But magically I had just come one step closer to one of my heroes. This funky little island with its abandoned buildings and seabird spectacles had just become a new heaven.

 

Photo credit Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

David Attenborough (cropped).jpg

Wildscreen’s photograph of David Attenborough at ARKive’s launch in Bristol, England © May 2003

The Trials of Life DVD cover