Weaver Nests

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

As the safari guide cruises across the African savannah, with wild cheetahs stalking gazelles and thousands of wildebeest amassing in huge herds, no one is looking for a finch-like bird. But after a few days one starts to wonder: what are all those grassy clumps in the trees?

 

Those are weaver nests.

 

Weavers are a large family of colorful songbirds similar to finches, and they are one of the most architecturally-talented birds on the planet.

 

There are 64 species in the Ploceidae family, found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. They do not migrate, living year-round in warm climates.

 

To learn more about the bird, visit Wikipedia Weaver Bird. You will see there are more than just 64 species from the Ploceidae family; additional weaver birds in other taxonomic families total 117 species.

 

Zambia Village surrounded by grass

 

Weaver nest, Zambia

 

The nest is built with grass found in the immediate vicinity. The males build the nests; females choose their mate based on the nest’s location, design, and comfort.

 

Typically bird nests are either open cups or hidden inside tree cavities. But not the weavers’.  It is cylindrically shaped; with a narrow entrance hole usually facing downward to deter predators. In the African savannah, where predators abound and trees do not, the weavers have cleverly designed an enclosed grass clump hanging from a tree.

 

Named for their weaving abilities, the male uses only his feet and bill to weave the elaborate construction. First he tears grass blades and other materials into long strips, then he loops the initial strands onto the tree limb.

 

Next he intricately weaves the grass to form the hollow body; last, he creates the tubular entrance.

 

The weaver birds reside in many different countries, each with different habitats, so the building materials vary. Notice in the photos above, the dry grass around the Zambian village is reflected in the weaver nest built nearby.

 

Moreover, each weaver nest design is species-specific. I have included diagrams from my field guide (Birds of Kenya, by Zimmerman, Turner, Pearson, 1999) to demonstrate how consistent this is.

Weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Second weaver nest diagram in Birds of Kenya

Number 1 in the first diagram, for example, belongs to the African Golden Weaver. Numbers 10a and 10b in the same diagram, each with dual parts, is home to the Spectacled Weaver. The tree in the second diagram, labeled 10a, shows multiple Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver nests.

 

The Sociable Weaver has the most elaborate nest of all.  They are colonial nesters and build massive nests that can weigh up to a ton. One nest can have over a hundred pairs of nesting sociable weavers, and additionally host other non-weaver species concurrently. This nest is the largest built by any bird on earth.

Sociable Weaver nests, Namibia. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

Regardless of how many birds are occupying the nest, sometimes a pair only, there is a lot of color and chatter and acrobatics.

Vieillot’s Black Weaver male weaving, Ghana. Photo: Adam Riley, 10000birds.com

When we watch television documentaries about the African savannah, it looks like there’s an adrenaline-raising chase going on all the time. In reality, there are certainly moments like that, but often lions are sleeping during the day after a night of hunting; or there’s no action in sight. There are definitely lulls.

 

This is a good time to seek out the weavers. Because they never seem to stop and rest, they are busy with their home-building tasks always. And it’s no wonder–there’s a lot of weaving to be done.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

For more Weaver info and photos: 10,000 Birds.

Sociable Weaver nest from below. Photo: Rui Ornelas, courtesy Wikipedia

Sociable weaver nest on electricity pole, South Africa. Photo: Mike Peel, courtesy Wikipedia

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New Cooper’s Hawks

Adult Cooper’s Hawk, in mid-March in the oak tree

Hawks are fierce hunters; they fly and perch noiselessly, hunt swiftly and quietly. But the chicks, of course, are not that way; they haven’t learned how to be  warriors yet.

 

Dependent, hungry, and inexperienced, the chicks have squawky voices and incessant demands: “feed me feed me feed me.”

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

 

It was the Cooper’s Hawk chick that gave away the secret of the well-hidden nest I found, high up in a madrone tree.

 

Just as I looked up to examine the unusual sound, a parent swooped into the nest with food. This quieted the chick. The little guys hadn’t learned stealth yet, and the parents know too well the importance of it.

 

Stealth is the key to survival in nature.

 

This coyote, in the vicinity of the hawk nest, would find a hawk chick tasty

 

Accipiter cooperii are medium-sized hawks, native to North America.  They live and breed primarily in forests, preying on birds and small mammals. Adult pairs breed once a year, and live in the wild as long as 12 years.

 

Cooper’s Hawk info. 

 

It was back in mid-March when I began noticing the Cooper’s Hawk here every day.  Temperatures were in the 30s and 40s (F.), there was even snow. The hawk perched every day in the same bare-leafed oak tree. Quiet and still, it mostly watched.

 

Eventually the cold days gave way to spring, and leaves started to bud and unfurl on the hawk’s oak tree. The raptor apparently preferred bare trees, because he or she moved, began perching on a nearby dead pine tree.

 

Once in awhile a bold hummingbird would harass the hawk, rather ridiculously, scolding it to move on. But nothing ever happened.

 

Then in June things changed. The hawk moved from that favorite spot in the pine tree–began perching near the bird feeders, instead. There were close-calls when the hawk nearly got a pigeon or mourning dove; and more frequently we were finding signs of a kill, evidenced by gray dove feathers scattered in the yard.

 

California Quail

 

Then there was the breakfast incident.

 

We were eating breakfast outside when a terrified California quail, sounding his alarm call, flew by us. Just behind him, the Cooper’s Hawk sailed effortlessly by, gaining on the quail.

 

Quail are heavy ground birds and don’t fly much. Cooper’s Hawks are agile fliers, silent and fast, bearing down dramatically on their prey.  When they reach the prey, they capture it with the talons and squeeze the bird to death.

 

The two birds disappeared around a bend.

 

Ten minutes later, during tea and scones, the hawk flew over our heads with the plucked prey in his talons.

 

When a raptor is taking food away from the kill-site, it usually means there are hungry chicks waiting in the nest.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest in madrone tree

 

It was the next day when I found the nest in the treetop, spotted the noisy chicks.

 

There were two chicks, and they were pretty big, nearly adult size. One was still in the nest; the other sat perched in a nearby tree. Neither could fly, but the older one could hop around.

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

A few weeks have passed and the nest is abandoned. But the chicks are still here.

 

The parents are quiet and hidden, there’s no evidence of them being around, but that’s the way it should be.

 

The chicks, well, they’re still learning. They hunt together, and I always hear them at dinnertime. The two siblings have high-pitched whistling calls, and they never stop making noise.

 

Instead of perching quietly and watching, they fly around conversing with one another through the trees. And yesterday they landed together on our deck railing.

 

We all have things to learn, even ferocious raptors.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Glory of Spring

Shooting Stars

One of my favorite places to be in spring is home, especially in April as the earth is waking up. Here is a sampling of what we have seen in the past two weekends of this springtime celebration.

 

Jackrabbit

Northern California had enormous precipitation this past winter; devastating for some communities, but plentiful for all. As a result, we have had abundant new growth.

 

While there have been many gorgeous flowering fruit trees and landscaped plants in town, I especially love the spring show in the forest mountains.  Wildflowers have begun their emergence, trees express their accelerated growth, and the wildlife have new goals.

 

Indian Warrior

 

Violet-green Swallow, male; newly arrived for the spring

The bird populations change, too.

 

Year-round birds start to sing differently, busy with the activity of attracting a mate and starting a family.

 

California Quail, a year-round bird

Migratory birds that wintered here are leaving for the season, headed north to nest in their homeland. Hermit Thrushes are gone now, and every day I hear a few less Kinglets.

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

Other migratory birds that left us in fall, are gradually returning for the warm months. The Bluebirds and Violet-green Swallows have come back, vying for the nest boxes as usual; the Olive-Sided Flycatchers have not yet returned, and I haven’t heard the California Thrasher either…but they will come along when it gets a little warmer.

 

They all remind me that cold, dreary days really are going to recede.

 

And all I need to hear is the first “spic,” to know that the Black-headed Grosbeak has returned.

 

Pacific Chorus Frog

Then there’s the nightly symphonics of the Pacific Chorus Frog at the neighbor’s pond. This little frog, about the size of my thumb, in concert with thousands of others, creates such a cacophony in the dark!

 

Lately I’ve been hearing Great Horned Owls dueting at night. Click here for this owl’s call.

 

Wild Violet

During the drought, some wildflowers didn’t bloom, some oaks didn’t produce acorns. It is their way of conserving energy.

 

This year the wildflowers are abundant. But true to wildflowers, they come and go with each day, depending on the severity of the wind and rain.

 

We can have a big patch of Indian Warriors one day, and a few days later they have already started melting back into the earth.

 

Miner’s Lettuce

Some of the flowers are bright and bold, others are subtle, like Miner’s Lettuce.

 

And the poison oak–although it is beautiful in shiny new, red leaves, is already chest-high in some places, and as daunting as ever. This plant is virulent every year regardless of drought.

Poison Oak

Western Bluebird (male)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Western Fence Lizard

Every season I am reminded of the  heavenly glories of life on earth. But the hope and brightness of spring, well, it a supreme pleasure.

 

Have a happy weekend, my friends~~

 

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Easter Bunny

 

 

 

Birds of the Okavango Delta, Part 2 of 2

Lilac-breasted Roller, Africa

When you joined me in Botswana Africa’s Okavango Delta last week, I presented birds that frequent the water.  See Part 1 here. Today we’ll complete the series with birds that tend to occupy the grassland and woodland habitats of the Delta.

 

The lilac-breasted roller is a favorite for many people, because of their astounding beauty. So-named for their aerial acrobatic rolling, they are about the size of a crow.

 

They hunt for insects and lizards, and perch in open spots, then flutter out like a ballerina in the air, and spin and roll with dazzling beauty.

 

Another very colorful and acrobatic bird, bee-eaters can be found on numerous continents; in Africa there are 20 species, with seven in Botswana.

 

Little Bee-eaters, Botswana

 

As you might have deducted from their name, the bee-eaters hunt bees; and are often seen on a limb whacking a freshly-caught bee–they are eradicating the bee’s stinger before consumption.

 

And then there’s the comical oxpeckers.

 

Sable with Oxpeckers

Usually found on the body of a large mammal, they eat the pesky ticks, and sometimes ear wax and dandruff. Not a charming diet, but a bird that is a fun to observe. Just looking at this photo starts you wondering where they venture….

 

Post by Jet Eliot about oxpeckers.

 

Another resplendent beauty, the Greater Blue-eared Glossy starlings shimmer in the blazing African sun.

Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Okavango Delta, Botswana

Long-tailed Shrike

Other birds pictured here are the long-tailed shrike, a thrill to watch flying as his tail waves through the air like an unfurled flag; and the coppery-tailed coucal with their copper tail and scarlet eye.

Coppery-tailed Coucal

 

Common in Okavango Delta, hornbills are known for their massive casque bills. There are seven hornbill species in Botswana alone. A previous post on the hornbills.

 

Yellow-billed Hornbill

 

Then there’s the very cool hammerkop, whose name translates to hammerhead, in describing the bird’s unusual hammer head-shape.

Hammerkop, Africa

 

One bird has so many unusual features, you don’t know what to think of it: the secretary bird.

 

Secretary Bird

This elusive bird of prey has the body of a raptor and the legs of a crane, with funky quill-like feathers on the head. They use their half-pantaloon/half-bare legs to stomp prey. Funny-looking but ferocious, they also use their large, hooked bill to strike prey.

 

The secretary bird is one of my favorites, read more at Loving the Secretary Bird by Jet Eliot.

 

Giant Eagle Owl, Botswana, Africa – aka Verreaux’s Eagle Owl

The largest owl in Africa, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is a towering force in the woods, eating mammals, birds and insects.

 

But even this bird, also known as the Giant Eagle Owl, has a soft side: when you find them sleeping, you see their pretty pink eyelids.

 

Because it’s an African safari and birds are only part of the adventure, I’ve also included a few other creatures we observed in the Okavango Delta.

 

Thank you for joining me on this two-part series, celebrating the wide variety of birds in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

 

Zebra, Okavango Delta

 

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Kudu with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on back