The World of Bird Nests

Yellow Warbler adult on nest, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

When we think of bird nests, our minds often default to the typical cup-shaped grass nest. But there are many different kinds of nests, built at all times of the year, all over the world–here is a glimpse.

 

Some birds are obvious in their nest-building, like colonies of frigatebirds with their nests perched in shrubs on the protected Galapagos Islands. Colonies use the power of community for protection.

 

Nesting Frigatebirds, Galapagos Islands, North Seymour Island

Other birds are more stealthy in their nest locations, and nest individually.

 

One of the secrets to spotting bird nests is watching bird behavior–you may see them carrying nesting materials in their bills or talons, like grass or twigs.

Savannah Sparrow, California

 

Although spring is the typical time of year for nesting, some parts of the world do not have defined seasons, nesting occurs year-round.

 

Flightless Cormorant pair on nest with juvenile in center, Galapagos Islands

 

More info: Wikipedia Bird Nests

 

Every bird species nests differently, depending on the birds’ abilities and environments. Woodpeckers, for example, have sharp chisel-like bills and a cranium for withstanding powerful drilling; they carve holes in tree trunks. Conversely, hummingbirds collect spider silk and lichen in their pinpoint bills, and quietly weave a petite nest.

 

Grass is one material birds will use, but there are many other materials. Last week we looked at Mud-Nesting Swallows. Birds like the black noddy use guano, some use saliva.

 

Black Noddy guano nest, Heron Island, Australia

 

Cup nests consist of grass and other available materials like leaves, pine needles, moss, feathers, plant fluff, bark and twig pieces–and they come in all sizes.

 

American Robin nest, Wisconsin

 

Hummingbird nest, Costa Rica

 

Large birds, like raptors or swans, build platform nests. Grebes build floating platforms.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest, California

 

Mute swan on marsh nest with cygnets

 

Nest Overview. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Pendant nests are another interesting architecture. Oropendulas and caciques design their nests to hang from trees.

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

Oropendola nests, Peru

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques on nests, Trinidad

 

Cavity nesters prefer to nest in a hole. This can be achieved in a number of ways: using the abandoned tree hole of a previous nest, or crafting a new one, or taking up residence in a human-provided nest box.

Western Bluebird at nest box, California

Many birds nest in cavities–woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, to name a few. In North America there are about 85 cavity-nesting species.

Article: Birds that Nest in Cavities

 

In the United States, house wrens are known for taking up residence in all sorts of unusual places.

House wren with nest (under rusty globe)

 

I have watched birds build the perfect abode, but have also seen sloppily-made nests yielding disastrous results. One year this beam (below) worked well for the Pacific-slope flycatcher; another year the defenseless nestlings came tumbling out onto the deck. So the next year we provided her with a nesting platform box, which was a resounding success.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest

Pacific-slope Flycatcher mother nesting in platform box we put up for her.

 

Many birds prefer tree trunks, limbs, snags, or other natural venues.

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

And then there are birds who do not use nests at all. Penguins keep their eggs nestled around their feet, preferring mobility and en masse body heat for nesting in harsh temperatures.

 

Many seabirds, who often only spend time on land for breeding, build their nests in rock crevasses, or ledges, or on remote ocean islands. I have spent many vacations trekking to isolated places to observe breeding seabirds.

Common Murre nesting colony, Alaska

 

Blue-footed Booby on nest (note the egg), Galapagos Islands

 

There are birds who simply lay their eggs on the ground,  called “scrape” nesting. It is usually a shallow depression, sometimes (but not always) lined with a little vegetation. There are a surprising number of birds who lay eggs in this precarious manner–most shorebirds and terns, many ducks, and more. Many eggs are shaped to not roll.

Western Gull on nest, California

 

Flamingos nest on mounds, to keep their brood above fluctuating water levels. Kingfishers, bee-eaters, and others prefer ground burrows.

White-fronted Bee-eater, burrow nests, Zambia, Africa

 

Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick on burrow nest, Kilauea Point, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Bowerbirds build bowers to attract mates–elaborate monuments. Found in Australia and New Guinea, they are known for gathering all kinds of curious objects to attract a mate. Satin Bowerbirds find blue items attractive, and the male sprinkles whatever blue he can find around his bower. After the female and male pair up, they build a nest, separate from the bower.

Satin Bowerbird bower, Queensland, Australia

 

Weaver birds are some of the most remarkable nest builders, often displaying craftsmanship to attract a mate. A finch-like bird found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, weavers are named for their magnificent nest-building talents.

 

A post I wrote: Weaver Nests.

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

Weaver nest, Zambia

Wherever we are in the world, with whatever kind of bird, we see parents working away at building a safe place for their offspring. This is a vital role, and a sweet and heartwarming event to observe.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher nest with eggs, California

Pacific-slope Flycatcher nestlings, ten days later from above-photo.  California

 

Snow Geese are Heading Home

It’s that time of year when the snow geese are beginning their long journey home. The fields of central California’s Pacific Flyway are drying up, the winter rains seem to be done. These snow geese are starting their return migration to Alaska and the Canadian arctic.

 

They have spent the winter here living on marshes, fields, and open habitats.  Preferring to be near water, this vegetarian bird forages on grasses, shrubs, tubers, and seeds.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes

About half of a snow goose’s year is spent away from home, migrating and wintering in warm locations all across the country. See map at end.

 

More snow goose info here.

 

When migrating, they fly very high, and take one of four different North American corridors, or flyways, to and from their breeding grounds. Our geese here in central California occupy the Pacific Flyway (green, west coast on this map directly below).

 

A gregarious bird, they migrate in large flocks and nest in colonies.

Courtesy Wikipedia

We visited several northern California wintering grounds last month. As some of you know, Athena (photographer and partner) and I have been returning to this area every winter for over a quarter-century.

 

Every visit we record all the bird species we’ve seen, enter the information in birding software. We now have a substantial idea of the migrating species here every winter.

Snow Geese, Sacramento NWR

Each year is a different story. Species populations vary depending on weather, food supply, habitat degradation, and breeding success. In the span of this many years, most bird species recover whatever hardship they had, and eventually we see the numbers back up again. Some species, like the bald eagle, even increase. Some species decline.

 

As far as snow goose populations go, this year there were enormous numbers of them, more than we have seen in many years.

 

I have read articles and books by ornithologists and birders from long ago, like John James Audubon, or more recently, Aldo Leopold and Roger Tory Peterson. Even some fiction writers from bygone years describe certain birds in their narratives.

 

I pay attention to the species they write about, a bird they are happy to see, how they describe it to the reader. Sometimes those species have been extinct for some time, or is a bird that I know would be nearly impossible to see anymore, there are so few of them left.

 

What I treasure about the snow geese, therefore, is their abundance–the way they darken the sky with their masses, fill the air with their boisterous, lively sounds. They still have a presence on this planet.

 

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

 

Listen to a minute of this recording, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Snow Geese, audio, large flock. 

 

They’ve had a mild winter here this year, have fattened up for the journey north, and now they begin their return trip.

Snow Goose “grin patch”

A seasonal farewell salute to this loveable bird, I look forward to seeing them again next winter.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

image of range map for Snow Goose

Snow Goose Range Map, provided by Birds of North America

 

Wildlife at Horicon Marsh

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

One of the largest freshwater marshes in the United States, Horicon Marsh offers a plethora of wildlife. Located in the southeastern quadrant of Wisconsin, U.S.A., and covering 32,000 acres (12,949 ha), the marsh is a critical rest stop for migrating birds.

Wikipedia Horicon Marsh. 

I love the solitude and beauty of this marsh, have written posts outlining how it was shaped: first by the glaciers, then by humans. But today I’m focusing just on the wildlife, because this is what I find so enchanting.

Previously written post: Horicon Marsh

Common Yellowthroat, Horicon Marsh

Painted Turtle, Horicon Marsh

Black Tern, Horicon Marsh

One of the most elegant terns on earth, the black tern migrates to North America from South America, and breeds at the Horicon Marsh, as well as other sites in northern U.S. and Canada.

 

Forster’s terns also breed at the Horicon Marsh.

Forster’s Tern, Horicon Marsh

 

Trumpeter Swans and cygnets, Horicon Marsh

Trumpeter Swans nest here too. This bird nearly went extinct, but has had a successful reintroduction. In 1933, there were fewer than 70 trumpeters living; today there are approximately 46,000 (Wikipedia).

 

And cranes! There are only two crane species in North America, and I’ve seen them both here at this marsh. There are few places of which this can be said.

 

In summer, sandhill cranes can often be seen at the marsh or in nearby fields, most often in pairs. The wild whooping cranes, however, were a rare sighting; they are an endangered species.

 

Whooping Cranes, Horicon NWR, Wisc.

In 1941 there were only 21 wild whooping cranes in existence. It has a been a long, hard struggle for this beautiful bird; but in 2015 the count was up to 603 individuals (including 161 captives) (Wikipedia).

 

Dragonflies abound, box turtles, butterflies, and over 300 species of birds.

Yellow Warbler on nest, Horicon Marsh

 

Halloween Pennant Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh, Wisc.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly, Horicon Marsh

Marsh birds are prevalent, like Canada geese, ducks, and herons.

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

Red-winged blackbirds, a healthy marsh staple, were everywhere; and one special siting that lasted about ten seconds: a yellow-headed blackbird.

Monarch Butterfly, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

American White Pelican (photographed in Calif.)

Also saw numerous American White Pelicans. Wisconsinites are happy about the come-back of this bird. The pelicans were absent for about one hundred years, probably due to over-hunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimated, in 2002, that the Horicon Marsh numbers had risen to about 1,200 white pelicans.

 

Muskrat, Horicon Marsh

It was a thrill to see several muskrats (locals call them “muskies”), especially the one that climbed out of the water–wonderful to see the whole body.

Common Muskrat, Horicon Marsh, WI

Marshes were once thought of as wasteland because they were not commercially enterprising. Part of the Horicon Marsh history includes those periods too, destruction and failed developments.

 

Fortunately residents and environmentalists changed that, saw its value, and preserved 32,000 acres. Today the benefits of wetlands are more widely known; they help moderate global climate conditions and play an integral role in watershed ecology. They also provide a productive ecosystem for countless living organisms.

 

How lucky for us.

 

All photos by Athena Alexander (except where noted)

 

Athena at the Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Horicon Marsh at sunset

 

 

Earth Day Success Story

Bodega Bay

When you look at this photo, and then the next one, you can see what Bodega Bay is in 2017 (color photo), compared to what it was about to become in 1963 (B/W photo)–a nuclear power plant.

 

HOLE IN THE HEAD: BEFORE

PGandE Nuclear Reactor Plant Project, Bodega Bay, CA. 1963. Photo by Karl Kortum, Courtesy Sonoma Co. Museum

If it hadn’t been for a determined group of ruffled citizens, outraged residents, and concerned scientists, this sparkling northern California bay would be filled today with backwater from a nuclear reactor site…or worse.

 

Great Egret fishing at Bodega Bay

 

It was the perfect location for a nuclear reactor plant, slated to be the biggest nuclear generator in history. Requiring abundant water to moderate the internal heat of fission, the nuclear plant was positioned to tower over the Pacific Ocean where it could use the ocean waters as a convenient coolant.

Western Gull, Bodega Bay

California’s powerful utility company, PG and E, had already applied for the permit, dug the pit, installed rebar, and set up for construction. Having begun the project in 1958, the power company was gaining momentum by the early 1960s.

Bodega Bay oceanside

Then came the heroes. There were many of them–they changed the course of history in Bodega Bay. Harold Gilliam, Karl and Bill Kortum, Joel Hedgpeth, David Pesonen, Doris Sloan, Hazel Mitchell, and Rose Gaffney — to name a few.

 

There was also a geophysicist, Pierre Saint-Amand, who did seismology tests and concluded that building a nuclear plant atop the active San Andreas Fault was a terrible idea.

 

These people didn’t know it then, but they were early environmentalists.

 

They spread the word. Hearings, protests, surveys, investigations, and lobbying ensued.

 

In 1964 the power company withdrew its application and left the site.  Read the full story here.

 

Bodega Bay Harbor Marina

Killdeer and seaweed at Bodega Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Originally it was called Campbell Cove, at Bodega Head; then it was touted as Atomic Park. When the utility company dug the 70-foot hole, the new name became Hole in the Head. And it’s still called that today.

 

Bodega Bay Hole in the Head

Soon the hole filled up with rainwater, and native shrubs and plants began to grow. Today, over half a century later, it is a tranquil little pond.

 

One day I stood there and counted five different species of raptors overhead at one time. The raptors like the updraft from the hillside.

 

Bodega Bay clamming

Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean host a vast wealth of marine mammals year-round, including harbor seal pups and migrating gray whales. Clean and cool waters are lively with invertebrates, crustaceans, salmon and steelhead; Dungeness crab are the holiday draw.

 

Marbled Godwit

Over 200 bird species come to Bodega Bay, including migrating shorebirds like the marbled godwit; they spend the winter months here on the Pacific Flyway.

 

Before there even was an Earth Day, or anything called environmentalists, here lived a courageous community who fought to keep the earth intact.  Fortunately for us, they won.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

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bodega head

Bodega Bay, Pacific Ocean. Photo: Richard James, coastodian.org, courtesy Bay Nature Mag.

 

Tufted Coquette

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre

One of the smallest hummingbirds, when this little orange bullet zooms by, you’re not sure if it’s an insect or a bird.

 

Tufted coquette, male

Tufted coquette, male. See the pollen on the tip of his bill?

Plumes and polka dots, metallic green, a spikey rufous crest, and a red bill–this bird has jazz.

 

Lophornis ornatus–even the Latin name implies decoration. More bird info here.

 

We saw them on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, but they are also seen in the humid rainforests, gardens, and plantations of Venezuela, Guiana, and northern Brazil. Measuring 2.6 inches (6.6 cm) long, the genders of this tiny species do not look alike.

 

Like many hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, this bird trap-lines while feeding; meaning they repeatedly check the same nectar source, like a trapper checking their traps.

 

If it wasn’t for the vervain plant they predictably visit for nectar, they would have been impossible to observe or photograph. The flower has several tiny petal clusters. The coquette probes its bill into one flower cluster, then on to the next and the next; but they do this so fast, it’s usually just a blur.

 

They feed on the nectar so fast that often their rear end is lagging behind the rest of the body.

 

Tufted Coquette, female

Tufted Coquette, female

 

 

Studying the field guide before our Trinidad arrival, we had hoped to see this splashy bird. Once we found them, and the vervain, we parked ourselves in front of the bush–especially Athena; every morning at dawn.

 

A daily routine has never been so delightful.

 

Coquette drawing from Charles Darwin’s book: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every year the Delta and Central Valley of northern California come alive when thousands of sandhill cranes settle here for the winter. My recent post highlighted the migrating ducks; here is a post, with pleasure, on the cranes.

 

Originally named for their migration through the sand hills and dunes of Nebraska, they fly here from the northern part of the continent every winter. See map and links below.

 

Sandhill Cranes, California

Sandhill Cranes, California

The sandhill cranes are mesmerizing to observe with their distinctive bugling calls, animated mating dances, graceful foraging, and stately appearance. A social bird, they travel in large flocks as a form of protection.

 

Approximately four feet tall (1.21 m) with a wingspan of over seven feet (2.13 m), the long-legged Grus canadensis is an omnivore. They eat insects, roots of aquatic plants, rodents, amphibians, snails, reptiles, berries, and cultivated grains.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

With one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird, sandhill cranes date back 2.5 million years. Over-hunted in the Gold Rush days, and listed as threatened in 1983, the population has made a recent comeback.

 

Wikipedia overview.

 

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

 

 

Winter in northern California is typically cool in the 40s F. (4 C ) with frequent rain storms. The cranes forage in shallow wetlands, a habitat that is diminishing across America. In addition, some states allow hunting of sandhill cranes, though not in California. So here they have a haven where it is safe to traverse the wet fields and open skies in search of meals.

 

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

Sandhill Cranes; parent on right, juvenile on left

 

The Nature Conservancy has worked cooperatively with farmers for many years toward attracting the cranes for winter “stopovers.”

 

This worldwide non-profit organization pays California rice farmers to keep their fields flooded and to leave rice straw acreage in place, providing suitable crane roosting and foraging habitat. While it is not a huge moneymaker, the farmers respect the land as crane habitat.

 

In the spring the cranes will return to their breeding grounds in the northern parts of  North America and northeastern Siberia, usually producing two eggs per season. With a lifespan of 20-30 years, cranes mate for life.

 

Sandhill cranes, California

Sandhill cranes, California

I have spent over two decades traipsing around these back roads, watching for this bird that I am so happy to greet every winter. I have watched many people (birders and not) at refuges and along the country roads–they are enthralled with the cranes, stop and watch the spectacle of these flocks.

 

How can you not be transformed by thousands of cranes congregating in a field?

The sound of a large flock of sandhill cranes by Bobby Wilcox

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

Sandhill Cranes, Lodi, Calif.

 

 

 

Where to look for sandhill cranes in northern California:

Consumnes River Preserve

Isenberg Sandhill Crane Preserve

 

Sandhill Crane Range Map

Sandhill Crane Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.org

 

The Edge of the Sea

Western Gull

Western Gull

To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.
~~Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind (1941)

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

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