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.

Mud-Nesting Swallows

San Francisco Bay cove

There are many different kinds of bird nests, and one that I find especially interesting is the mud nest. I came upon cliff swallows building their mud nests last week in a cove of San Francisco Bay.

 

I was walking in a residential neighborhood at the shoreline, when I noticed two or three dozen cliff swallows swooping around the water’s edge. That day we had particularly low tides. In fact, in the four months I’ve been traversing this path, I have never seen so much exposed mud.

 

Cliff swallow pair gathering mud

 

The swallows were taking advantage of the mud opportunity afforded by this perigee phase of the moon (unusually close to earth).

 

In an area where there are usually ducks and cormorants swimming in the lapping water, this sight of the swallows fluttering in the mud slowed my disciplined pace.

 

I watched as the swallows used their bills to dig up little dabs of mud. Bills loaded with mud, they flew off to a nearby waterfront house; all flew to the same place, the underside of one house.

 

Superior flyers that they are, the swallows didn’t even pause at the extensive nets lining the underside, presumably installed to prevent this very activity. They effortlessly navigated through the net holes to the house’s beams.

Cliff swallows gathering mud from the shoreline

One after another, each individual delivered their mud pellets, turned around and glided right back to the tidal mud, and scooped up more. This went on for at least 15 minutes.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow at cove

There was no way to see or photograph the nests without a boat. But cliff swallow nests look like this.

 

Cliff swallow and nest. Photo: Mike’s Birds, courtesy Wikipedia.

They’re gourd-shaped, mud enclosures with a single opening.

 

Named for their behavior of building on cliffs, the cliff swallow has adapted, in the absence of cliffs, to building on human structures. They build under bridges, on highway overpasses, and other man-made structures, like houses.

 

Sometimes cliff swallows build fresh new nests, and sometimes they use old nests. They are colonial nesters and their living quarters can grow quite expansive. This swallow is known for their big communities, the species of the legend, the returning swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

 

There are about 80 species of swallows across the globe, occupying every continent except Antarctica. They don’t all build mud nests. The violet-green swallow, for example, is a cavity nester. I have witnessed their nest-building skills every spring in nest boxes on our property.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Barn swallows, the most widespread swallow in the world, also collect mud pieces for use in their nests. As their name suggests, they typically build in a barn or stable. Their mud nests are cup-shaped, usually built on a beam. Just like the cliff swallows, barn swallows require fresh mud for their nesting venue, and consequently nest near water.

Barn swallow nestlings, Pierce Point Ranch, Pt. Reyes, CA

Another swallow we encountered that day at the waterfront were the northern rough-winged swallows. They prefer to nest around water too, but build tunnels in the ground instead of nests.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow pair

Wherever you are, it’s always rewarding to observe birds building nests–the materials they choose, the places they set up house, and the devotion they declare in starting a new generation.

 

A toast to the mud-nesters: here’s mud in your eye.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

 

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