Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Finding Nesting Species Can Be Challenging
July 4, 2009
By Steve Grinley
As I mentioned last week, the wet weather has made it difficult to get out and look for evidence of breeding birds for our Atlas project. Still, I ventured out one morning this past week and decided to head to Martin Burns Wildlife Management Area in Byfield to try to confirm a few more nesting species. After completing more than 50 hours of searching in each of our blocks, it is difficult to find a bird that we haven’t yet confirmed, or at least listed as a probable nester. So I went with the intent to try to focus on just the few species that I knew that we needed.
It was another foggy morning, with the threat of rain in the forecast (what else is new?), so I knew I needed to be efficient in walking to the areas that had the most potential. For any normal bird walk, it was a glorious morning that any self-respecting birder would be happy with. Rose-breasted grosbeaks greeted my arrival and I encountered indigo buntings nearly every step of the way. The recent cutting there has produced ideal habitat for the buntings and it was hard to be out of earshot of one singing at any particular time. I encountered scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, and towhees along the way as well. But I had already confirmed breeding for each of these species so I couldn’t linger and admire their bright colors on this drab day.
I went up to the railroad bed and walked to an area where I had a pair of Virginia rails calling a few weeks back. As I approached the open wetland, a large black water snake slithered off into the water. I’ve encountered my share of these snakes in the past months while Atlasing. I spent some time listening for the rails, and hoping to catch a glimpse of some chicks to confirm nesting, but to no avail. Common yellowthroats and red-winged blackbirds sang all around me, but no rails that day.
A large bird flew from the trees at edge of the wetland which I thought, at first, was a red-tailed hawk. It flew away from me down the railroad bed and looked to land in trees just off the bed. It lacked the tail of a hawk and I realized that it was a large owl. Its light brown coloration on its back suggested barred owl, but it was large enough to have been a great horned owl. I walked down to where it appeared to have landed, but I couldn’t relocate it. It must have slipped silently away.
I walked down the other end of the railroad bed toward Route 95 to a wet area that was productive for us in the past. It contains several great blue heron nests that you can see from Route 95. I only had binoculars with me, but I could see 3 young herons on one nest and single young herons on two other nests far out in swamp. Great blue herons have nested here for the third year that we have been doing the Atlas, so they were confirmed long ago. We had also already confirmed nesting wood duck, hairy woodpeckers, warbling vireos, and white-breasted nuthatches in this same area.
I was trying to confirm great crested flycatchers, as each time I was there, a pair were very vocal and flying around. This time was no exception. I could hear the flycatcher’s “wheeep” call from the trees about a hundred yards out. That one came closer and eventually flew over my head and went into the trees behind me. I heard a second flycatcher calling from the swamp, but this call seemed weaker – perhaps a young bird! I scoured the trees in the middle of the water, trying to get sight of a bird. I moved up and down the bed trying to triangulate the sound to pinpoint it. Finally, something in the foreground caught my attention. There was movement near the top of a broken off tree about a hundred feet out. It was the tail of a bird sticking out of a hole. It was a flycatcher!
As I watched, it flew down to some low shrubs not far from where I was standing, calling as it perched. Its paler yellow belly told me it was the female flycatcher. I then saw the brighter male, with its bright yellow belly and rusty tail perch atop the broken off tree. He had a dragonfly in his bill and, after some cautious peering around, he dropped to the hole and fed his brood. When he left, I could see one large mouth of a nestling still open in the cavity. I watched the male adult return a couple of times with food while the female bird was on lookout below. I then left to a safer distance away, but watched for a while longer as both parents continued to bring food to the nest.
The sky was threatening so I started to make my way back. I encountered a cute little, and tail-less, catbird fledgling calling for food. I wished I had some grape jelly to offer it (as the catbirds, and orioles, are eating two pounds of jelly weekly at my store feeders). But I knew that the young catbird would be better nourished with insects and worms by the parents that were in the immediate area. As I walked, I also encountered a cedar waxwing on a nest in a pine tree along the road. Both catbirds and waxwings were confirmed nesting in past years.
I did encounter another fledgling – this one a cowbird crying for food. I stopped to watch as a male scarlet tanager brought it food. Cowbirds, of course, are parasites that drop their eggs in other birds nest, leaving the host bird to hatch and raise their young. This beautiful scarlet tanager was being a good “parent” to this ugly baby bird that was larger than the tanager. Though I had already confirmed tanagers, this confirmed, though sadly, breeding cowbirds in this block for me. I’m not sure where the female tanager was during all this, but I did wonder how many of the original tanager clutch didn’t make it because of the larger, overbearing cowbird.
I had to double back through this area when my path was blocked by high water, when I heard another fledgling in the same area. This time it was a young scarlet tanager fluttering it wings to be fed. Sure enough, the male tanager came and fed its proper offspring as well. At least one tanager nestling had fledged, but I couldn’t stick around to look for more. The rain had begun to fall and I had all I could do to make it back to my car before the skies really opened up. I was just glad to know that the cowbird wasn’t the only result of that tanager’s nesting efforts.
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