The Junco Nest

Finding nests is one of those magical spring events that can sometimes lead to a sad ending. All kinds of things can go wrong in this vulnerable bird activity. But fear not: this story has a happy ending.

Juncos are sparrows, and common across North America. Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are migrants in parts of the continent, and year-round residents in other parts. Where I live in Northern California, we have both: residents and migrants. The two races look a little different, but at any rate, we have a healthy resident population who are currently nesting. (The migrants left several weeks ago.)

More info: All About Birds Dark-eyed Junco

They are ground birds, with a diet primarily of seeds, and are ground nesters.

You can imagine what kind of dangers lurk for a ground nest on a rural mountain property — snakes, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and skunks frequently roam our hills and forest.

Last autumn there were wild amaryllis flowers, aka Naked Ladies (Amaryllis Belladonna), growing outside our kitchen sink window. They are bright pink flowers with a bubblegum scent. They grow everywhere, like weeds; found these (below) beside a trail in a park. You can see a mass of their dead leaves at the base of the flowers.

Every spring around April, after the flowers outside our kitchen window are long gone, the leaves dry out and turn yellow and we cut them back.

Except this year something different happened.

While the leaves were still green, a junco began hopping around underneath the amaryllis leaves, displaying unusual behavior. We recognized it as nesting behavior and realized the female was building a nest under there.

Slowly the amaryllis leaves began to dry out, but there was still enough foliage for completely camouflaging the nest.

About a week after that, there was more progress. Both the male and female were stealthily and industriously coming in with a worm or insect clamped in their bills. They hopped underneath the leaves, vanished for a second, then flew out; repeating this activity dozens of times in a day.

Babies!

This little corner of our property is not commonly visited by humans. We use it as a shortcut, but visitors don’t…well not human visitors. It’s on a hillside with giant boulders, as you can see in this photo, and not conducive to human walking. Can you see the amaryllis leaves in the middle of the photo? Also, take note of the external pipe on the right side of the photo.

Plenty of wildlife walk through here. After 20 years at the kitchen sink, I have seen so much activity in this little corner of the world. Sure makes doing dishes fun.

This particular nest, however, was worrisome from the start. The ground nesters, in my humble opinion, are asking for trouble.

From the critter cam we know of one skunk individual who regularly waddled through here in February and March. It was part of his or her nightly routine. Suppose that skunk would like a nice, delicious midnight snack.

Now that the nest was there and a new family was on the way, the risks seemed high. I hoped the skunk had found a new routine.

Years ago this gopher snake came through. I guess it found the pipe a fun challenge. But–yikes–a gopher snake so cheeky to wrap around a household pipe must be a very successful hunter.

We commonly have rattlesnakes here too. This time of year they’re just coming out of underground hibernation. Too sad if they were to enjoy some fresh breakfast eggs.

Days went by and the feeding continued, feverishly. Apparently they still had the nestlings.

Although it was tempting to lift the leaves to investigate, we never did.

Not a good idea. Didn’t want to traumatize any of these birds. The parents were working so hard on constantly keeping their new brood fed. And the nestlings were no doubt tiny and extremely fragile.

We waited until the feeding was done and all the birds were gone. That was last week.

We never saw one baby bird, but we were sure they were under there due to all the feeding activity.

Then this past Monday, after a week of nest dormancy, we looked into the nest.

Gingerly pushing away the dead leaves, we found this beautiful grassy nest in a small depression in the ground.

They typically lay 3-5 eggs, and apparently it was a successful brood because the nest was empty except for some fecal sacs.

Whew. It could’ve turned out differently, and we certainly have witnessed plenty of unsuccessful broods. But what a relief and complete joy to know there are several new baby juncos making their way in this world.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Water Tray

Wild bobcat at the water tray, photographed by the outdoor camera

At this time of year, when it is extremely dry where I live in Northern California, the water tray is a popular outdoor wildlife attraction.

By the time we get to August, when there hasn’t been rainfall since April, streams are dried up, rivers are trickling, and lakes have significantly diminished in volume.

By providing a refreshing drink during the most parched season, we are inviting an ongoing parade of wild creatures.

It is a great thrill to be on the daily route of our wild friends.  On a hot summer afternoon, this coyote is headed toward the water tray. He has that determined look like we hikers get when we can hardly wait for a break-time sip.

Coyote, No. California, headed for the water tray

Frequent wildlife guests are excellent incentive to keep the trays clean and filled. We have two trays, move them around occasionally to make sure they are fully utilized. We place them where we can use the garden hose to fill them, so that it’ a quick task.

The water also makes an attractive bathing station for the birds, including this golden-crowned sparrow one spring day last April.

Golden-crowned Sparrow, No. Calif., bathing in the water tray

The mammals can get a drink pretty easily. The short-legged ones, like this chipmunk, are acrobatic and creative in accessing their refreshment.

Chipmunk on rock, No. Calif.

In general, the smaller the animal, the more often they drink, because they have a higher ratio of surface area to volume, lose water faster.

The chipmunks race over a rock to the tray, taking a drink almost every hour. Squirrels do a similar thing, though they don’t race, they prance.

For the birds, we put a stick and/or big rock inside the tray, to aid them and prevent accidental drowning. Some birds perch on the edge of the tray, some stand on the rock.

The usual array of backyard birds visit the water all day long: finches, juncos, towhees, jays, doves, chickadees, titmice, and more. Even nuthatches drink from the water tray.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, No. California

When a bird drinks, they dip their bill into the water, collect the fluid in their mouth and then look skyward, using gravity to swallow. But a few avian exceptions, notably doves and pigeons, have a sucking ability that most birds do not have. They drink and swallow, like mammals, like us, without having to tilt their heads up.

Some bird species, like raptors, usually acquire their necessary moisture from the body of the prey they have killed.

One August day last year, however, I saw this Cooper’s hawk, below, drinking at our water tray. In all my decades on earth, I had never seen a raptor drink water from a natural or manmade source.

This individual was born on our property three years ago, and has lived here ever since. I think he is so homegrown that he knows the water tray is always readily available.

Cooper’s Hawk at the water tray (photographed through a window), No. California

Night visitors, usually mammals, come regularly to the water tray. In summer we set the critter cam up to photograph our property’s hotspot.

Bobcat visit about once or twice every week (see first photo). Jackrabbits live on the property and are here every day and every night.

Jackrabbit, Northern California, at the water tray

This jackrabbit is having a morning stretch.

Jackrabbit stretching at the water tray

Every year is different, which is what I like most about living with wildlife.

Wildlife populations have good years and bad; here their reproductive success is primarily dependent on weather (food) and wildfires.

For many years we heard and saw foxes almost nightly. These are gray foxes, the native residents, they prefer chaparral habitat like ours. Then for several years we never saw or heard evidence of any.

Fortunately this year we have fox coming several times a week.

Gray fox at the water tray, No. Calif.

Lately this skunk has been here every night. They’re not a problem, and they eat carrion.

Striped Skunk at the water tray, No. Calif.

We keep the trays filled in winter too, because wildlife always need water. But in winter, if we are lucky to have rain, the trays stay filled on their own from the precious water that falls from the sky.

No matter what the season, there is often some lively activity to watch at the water tray.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander and the Critter Cam.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit, No. California

Easter Eggs

Hummingbird nest, Costa Rica

With spring and Easter emerging in the northern hemisphere, the prospect of new birds, new life, surrounds us. Here’s a look at bird eggs.

 

Having volunteered for several years counting nests for a local bird study, I became adept at finding bird nests. Birds build nests to be hidden, to protect their broods from predation, and it is vital that nests and eggs remain untouched and hidden. All nests photographed here have been treated with careful and knowledgeable respect.

 

Violet-green Swallow eggs, California

 

There are over 10,000 bird species on our planet, so the variation in eggs and nests is vast. Each species has its own method for building a nest and laying eggs, and, additionally, there are variations within each species.

 

Egg shapes, colors, and markings vary widely. Below is a guide for the basic egg shapes and markings.

 

Eggshells are made of calcium carbonate, a white mineral compound. Some bird species also have pigment glands that add color or spots as the egg travels through the mother’s oviduct. Because the large end of the egg travels through the oviduct first, it often picks up more pigment.

 

This little bird came out of a brown-spotted egg–first day of life.

 

Pacific-slope Flycatcher hatchling (orange and brown in center photo), and sibling unhatched eggs

 

There is also a wide range in egg sizes. The smallest eggs are those of Hummingbirds, while Ostriches have the largest. Approximately 5,500 Hummingbird eggs would fit inside one Ostrich egg (Handbook of Bird Biology, Cornell).

 

Purple Finch nest and eggs

 

Egg textures vary too–smooth, rough, chalky and more.

 

With endless variations in bird eggs, only two things are constant: all eggshells are porous, and all are laid by females.

 

Eggshells are covered with minute pores allowing air to reach the embryo inside.

 

Inside the egg is an entire universe. Membranes, fluids, and yolk provide nutrition to the embryo, which rotates and floats throughout incubation. Once the embryo has grown to full size, the bird uses its “bird tooth” to break through the shell.

Chicken egg diagram.svg

Chicken egg diagram. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

A clutch is the total number of eggs laid by one female in one nesting. The clutch size varies among species, as does the number of times in one season a bird will lay a new clutch.

 

Bird egg experts, or oologists, collect extensive data. These days, unlike in the 19th and 20th centuries, experts do not collect the eggs, just the information. The egg chart below, and information in the next paragraph, are from an easily accessible field guide.

 

Detailed data on the Western Gull, for example, says this species can lay 1-4 eggs in a clutch, typically 3. Eggs are laid every other day. Usually the female does the incubating, and it takes 25-29 days, typically 26.

 

We spotted this Western Gull incubating on a coastal offshore island while cormorants, oystercatchers, and pelicans clamored about. I think she was having a tough day.

 

Western Gull on nest, Calif.

 

For many consecutive years, several pairs of Pacific-slope Flycatchers (songbirds) built nests near our front and back doors. Sometimes a pair produced two clutches in a summer, sometimes one, depending on the weather and other factors.

 

When it was time, the eggs would usually hatch one per day. But not always. One spring we had a frigid cold front come in. The Flycatchers’ eggs stopped hatching until the cold spell ended, and then resumed when it warmed up a few days later.

 

In our northern hemisphere, numerous bird species are in some stage of breeding or nesting right now. Miracles are happening all around us.

 

In tropical locations, this often goes on year-round. We spotted these Caciques nesting in February in Trinidad.

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques on nests, Trinidad

 

Just before incubation time, most parent birds develop a brood patch on the ventral, or underside, of their body. While feathers are designed to insulate the bird, during incubation when it is essential that the parent’s body radiates warmth to the egg, a small, featherless patch develops to provide an abundant supply of blood vessels.

 

Waved Albatrosses in Galapagos do not build a nest, but just move the egg around.

 

Waved Albatross with egg, Galapagos

 

Similarly, Blue-footed Boobies do not have brood patches. They use their feet to keep the egg warm.

 

Blue-footed Booby with egg, Galapagos

 

Oval or spherical, spotted or pale green, big or little, pigments in the oviduct, brood patch and clutch — who knew the egg could be so eggciting?

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Egg Markings and Shapes. Courtesy Peterson Field Guides Western Birds’ Nests by Hal Harrison.

 

Three photographs of the same Mute Swan with her eggs, and then cygnets.

Mute Swan with eggs in nest, Easter Sunday 2018

 

Mute swan on marsh nest with cygnets

 

Mute Swan with cygnets, Calif.

 

Winter with Anna’s Hummingbirds

Anna's Hummingbird, Northern California

Anna’s Hummingbird in snow (male), Northern California

In some places on the west coast of North America, depending on latitude, the Anna’s hummingbird can be found all year long.

 

Interestingly, in the first half of the 20th century, Calypte anna were only seen in California and Baja California.  But with the planting of exotic flowering trees and gardens, this tiny, sparkling bird successfully expanded its breeding range.

 

Calypte anna map.svg

Anna’s range map. Green= breeding & wintering; Blue=wintering. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In addition to California and Baja, they now breed in several other westerm U.S. states and Canada.  They winter as far north as British Columbia.   More info about Anna’s Hummingbird here.

 

When we first moved to our property in northern California, we only had hummingbirds in the warm months.  At 2,300′ altitude, we have occasional winter snow and ice.  Calypte anna have a body temperature of approximately 107 degrees Fahrenheit, and need warmth.

 

But the hummingbirds, we knew, lived just 20 miles away in the lower elevations all year round, even the winter.

 

So we installed several nectar feeders, kept them filled and cleaned throughout the year, even though the hummingbirds were not present in winter.

 

Then male Anna’s started showing up at the feeders, and staying through the winter.  A few years later, the females wintered here too.  I am happy to report, they are now here rain or shine, summer or winter.

 

Yesterday I glanced over to see a male at the feeder, and then, as if to say hello, he lifted from the feeder, buzzed his wings and stayed in place.  At that moment the sun, in its low winter angle, came right through the fluttering wings.  There was no color because the sun was blinding, but instead it was an apparition — a tiny angel at our feeder.   Blissful.

 

For glorious year-round hummingbird watercolors: janetweightreed 10 at jcrhumming.wordpress.com

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Violet-green Swallows

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

Every summer the Violet-green Swallows nest here in the western U.S., and I am treated to many weeks of their close presence as they vie for a nest box, then build a nest and produce a family.

 

They arrive every February from their winter grounds of Mexico and Central America, signalling summer is around the corner.  Usually they come for a few days, then we have a cold snap and they leave, then it warms up; and this pattern continues until one day we start to see them gathering nesting materials.  As I live in a forest full of pine trees, pine needles are the building material of choice.  I find it comical to watch both genders figure out ways to enter the one inch nest box hole with a four inch missile.  California,-VG-Swallow-front

 

I love watching swallows fly more than any bird on this planet.  Their acrobatics are astounding. The insect diet contributes to their dexterity in flight, for they are constantly chasing and catching bugs “on the wing.”  They eat mosquitoes and flies, wasps, moths, and winged ants to name a few.  The swallows remain our handy and organic insect control.

 

California,-VG-Swallow-female-on-nestboxTachycineta thalassina are found only in the American West, and only in the summer months. But there are 83 species of swallows and martins occupying the globe, and they live on all continents except Antarctica.

 

The violet-green swallow lays 4-6 eggs in their neat nests, and spend many weeks raising their young.  The fledglings are nearly adult size when they begin flying, and once they hit the skies the only difference they display from their parents is more wing beats and less soaring, and that’s only for a week or two.

 

Violet-green swallow eggs in nest box

Violet-green swallow eggs in nest box

When the swallows are done breeding, usually in July, they return to Mexico in large flocks, and their cheerful incessant chee-chee chirping  ceases to exist.  Fortunately, they will be back in February on or about the very same day they arrived here last year, and the whole beautiful cycle begins again. 

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

California,-VG-Swallow-profile

 

 

 

Steller’s Jay

Steller's Jay, California

Steller’s Jay, California

The only crested jay west of the Rockies, the Steller’s Jay can be found in forested areas, primarily coniferous.  In the same Genus as the Blue Jay, they are strictly found in western North America.

 

Birders associate them, and rightly so, with the mountains.  When you hear that characteristic shuck-shuck-shuck you know the elegant crested jay is nearby.  Cyanocitta stelleri also have many other sounds.  Like other birds in the corvid family, they mimic birds.  I am still sometimes fooled when a very talented steller’s jay does a spot-on impersonation of a red-tailed hawk.

 

Like all jays, their size is quite large.  The steller’s jay is about 11 inches (29 cm) long.  Their omnivore diet is variable with berries, fruit, insects, spiders, bird eggs, and even table scraps.  In the fall, they can be seen doggedly collecting acorns all day long in preparation for the winter.  They cache acorns in the ground or tree for later consumption.  These amazing jays are equipped for opening hard acorns with special modifications of the bones near the base of the jaw, to help brace the lower mandible when pounding.

 

You can read about the steller’s jay here.

 

The adult male and female of the species do not differ, but the juvenile does.  Juveniles generally have paler coloring than their parents.  We have arrived, in the northern hemisphere, at that time of year when the juveniles are now on their own.  Where I live the steller’s jays are now in their teen stage.  There are six or seven around the feeder at one time, squawking and squabbling as jays do, and showing themselves to be quite demanding, like teens (heh-heh) can sometimes be.  It’s all a joy.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Calif.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Calif.

The range map for the Chestnut-backed Chickadee indicates a small ribbon on the U.S. Pacific Coast and parts of Canada.  I feel lucky to have this little cutey regularly in my backyard.  And this week has been even more special.

 

Like other chickadees in the U.S., they playfully pop around in the trees, acrobatically hunting for insects, wasps, and caterpillars.  At this time of year they’re focusing on breeding, and soon they will be gathering nesting materials for the new brood.  Poecile rufescens are cavity nesters, so they will build in a tree hole or human-provided nest box.

 

A few days ago I was sitting on our deck when the chickadee perched on the deck railing just eight inches away from me.  Then he fluttered and hovered around my head as if it was the crown of a leafy tree.

 

Yesterday morning I was standing under an old oak tree, also on our property.  I knew he was around because I could hear his distinct “chicka-dee-dee-dee.”  Once again, he came down from the top of the oak tree and fluttered around my head.  I moved to the side a little to get out of his way, wondered if he thought I was going to steal the leafroller worms he was going after in the oak leaves.  But in spite of my moving out of the way, he came back again!  Fluttered and danced in my aura.

 

Why is the chickadee suddenly interested in me this week?  Three close encounters in less than a week.  I was wearing the same yellow vest in all three instances, maybe he thought I was a giant leaf?  Maybe he found my head of hair suitable nesting material?  Whatever it was, I like to think he’s just happy to see me, and the truth is, I am happy to see him too.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Cedar Waxwings

Adult Cedar Waxwing

Adult Cedar Waxwing, Calif.

There are only three species of waxwings in the world, two of them are in North America (the third is in Japan).  In the United States we have the Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings.  Waxwings are named for the waxy red tips on certain wing feathers of the adult, as pictured here.

 

One day last month they came to a madrone tree in our front yard and partook of the orange berries.  We were going on a walk and they stayed long enough for a few photos.  They usually move in and out in a matter of minutes, but this mild, November day we got lucky.

 

Cedar-WaxwingThe cedar waxwing can be found all across the United States at different times of the year.  A gregarious bird, they are usually seen in flocks.  They live in open woodlands, orchards, fields, swamps and even suburban yards.  They forage mostly on berries and insects.  For more about the cedar waxwing, click here.

Cedar Waxwing juvenile

Cedar Waxwing juvenile

 

With a soft, almost imperceptible high-pitched trilling sound, they are often not noticed by many people.  In the farmer’s market where I go every week I occasionally see flocks of this elegant bird descend in the parking lot, and no one but me looks up.  Butternut squash in hand and a bagful of greens on my shoulder, I stop in my tracks and enjoy this private viewing with a big, broad smile.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Grosbeaks Galore

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

Black-headed Grosbeak, male

I am so lucky to have these beauties at the sunflower feeder all day every day during the summer months.   They are eating, singing, calling, and gliding by my backyard chair during all hours of daylight.  It’s heavenly.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Baby Birds Abound

California Quail family

California Quail family

Right now North America is bursting with baby birds.  Just about all of us on this continent live where young birds are starting their lives.  Soon the chicks will be strong and they will fly to a warm winter place.  But for now they are usually close by their parents, near to where they were born, and learning how to survive.  There are many ways to identify an immature bird; you don’t have to be an expert, you just need to look around. 

 

Pictured here are two examples of a juvenile and adult species:  the California Quail and the Western Scrub-Jay.  The quail chick (far left) is fluffy with new feathers, streaked, and small compared to the parents (male with black throat, female in foreground).  The jay is naturally a lankier type of bird so this species will not be plump and fluffy like the quail; they’re scrawny, however, and have slightly different markings than their parents. 

Western Scrub-Jay, immature

Western Scrub-Jay, immature

 

In many bird species the juvenile is smaller than the adult, at least for a short time, and the feathering is often scruffy until all the feathers unfold.  Each individual species varies of course, but if you take a look at a bird and see that it has scruffy or sometimes super fluffy feathering, you’re probably on the track of a juvenile.  Watching the bird for just a few minutes more usually reveals juvenile behavior. 

Western Scrub-Jay, adult

Western Scrub-Jay, adult

 

When they’re first off the nest they are usually with their parents and two common activities are a giveaway that it’s a youth:  either they are incessantly squawking in a rather weak voice, or they are conspicuously quivering their wings.  Both of these actions are the bird demanding one thing:  feed me. 

 

Although a lot of people discover and enjoy these scenes in their backyard, it is prevalent in urban settings as well.  I have been in busy cities in a parking lot observing harried adult house sparrows in shrubs feeding their chicks, or blackbirds in trees lining the courthouse dive-bombing passers-by to protect their nesting young. 

 

We are lucky to have so many new birds being born here.  I have been in countries that have been so denatured over the centuries that few birds live and breed there anymore.  It’s a sad thing to see, and makes you want to notice and encourage the life force of birds. 

 

California Quail chicks

California Quail chicks, siblings

Juvenile bird behavior can also be very entertaining.  In our yard the California quail chicks are learning to take a dust bath.  We see it around our dinner time when they are with their parents, heading for their nighttime roost.  One of the coveys has teenagers.  Following their parents’ example, the teens go to a dusty hollow in the trail and plop into the dust.  They frantically shake about fluttering their wings, rocking around, creating a dust cloud.  If you don’t know what they’re doing, it looks like they’re in trouble.  They do it to bathe, especially during the hot and arid times of year here in California where it doesn’t rain from June to November.  Even though we provide water which they also indulge in, the dust absorbs excess oil and mites.  The funny part is that they are learning, so they are not very good at it yet.  The dust doesn’t always hit their backs, or the teenager accidentally rolls over into another bird. 

 

Another entertaining sight is watching the juvenile hummingbirds.  It is common to see adult hummingbirds zoom around.  But when they are youthful they zoom around everything including inanimate objects, wasting precious energy on anything they fancy.  They have an abundance of energy and a deficit of experience, so they explore parked car lights and the deck umbrella as earnestly as a nectar-filled flower. 

 

If you take a few minutes each day to look at the birds flying around you, you may have the pleasure of watching a gawky inexperienced bird learning to fly, or feed.  It’s always a good reminder for any human, no matter what stage of life, that we’re all just learning something new about how to be in this wonderful world.