Joy in Parting

What Joy Can There Be In Parting?

~A poem by Melissa Dowland; images by Mike Dunn

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The bluebird perched on the branch
right in front of me.

I could see his sharp beak,
his rusty breast,
his snow-white belly.

Eastern Bluebird with Dogwood berry

Then he turned
And became a dazzle of blue
as he flew between the trees
and out of sight.

What joy there can be in parting.

Busy Bluebirds

The bluebird is one of the most familiar tenants of the farm and dooryard. For rent the bird pays amply by destroying insects, and takes no toll from the farms crop.

~USDA Farmers Bulletin #513, 1913

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am trying to provide some video clips of what birds are feeding their young for an environmental education film called Hometown Habitat. The nesting season has passed for most local species, but, my friend, Alvin, informed me of a late Eastern Bluebird nest in a hollow log nest box at his house. Being one of the most recognized and beloved songbirds in the east, this is a species I really wanted to get for the project. So, in spite of the heat and humidity, I dragged my gear into Raleigh two days this week to see what I could capture.

Male Bluebird at nest opening

Male Eastern Bluebird at nest opening (click photos to enlarge)

It turned out that the nest box was in a great location for me to film while not disturbing the birds, and staying out of the heat of the sun. It was under the eaves of a shed that was visible from Alvin’s garage, so I set up the tripod just inside the garage and waited. It wasn’t long before the pair began bringing food to the young. I filmed a little over an hour on each of the two days. The first day I was there around mid-day and it was very hot, with temperatures in the 90’s. The birds seemed to take a little break from feeding in the heat (I don’t blame them), so I was only able to get a few clips. I decided to go back earlier the next day and that proved more productive.

Female Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar

Female Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar

I recorded trips to the nest box by both adults for an hour. In that time period, the birds made 12 trips with food. The female did most of the work, making ten of the twelve feeding trips. The male made two trips with food and three without as in the first photo above (more on that later). After looking at the clips, I could make out all but three of the food items brought to the nestlings. Of those I could identify, there were 4 caterpillars, 3 grasshoppers/crickets, 1 beetle grub, and 1 spider. Three of the caterpillars resembled Corn Earworms, but I can’t see enough detail to be sure. There is a corn field on some NCSU property just down the road, so it is possible.

These baby bluebirds probably have several more days in the nest  based on Alvin’s observations. If you make some assumptions about the number of feeding trips during the nest cycle, you come up with some impressive numbers of insects and other food items brought in by the busy parents. Let’s give these bluebird adults an 8-hour workday (an underestimate, I am sure) with ten feeding trips per hour. Stretch that over the typical nestling period of 14 days and you get an impressive 1,120 feeding trips made by the parent birds (again, undoubtedly an underestimate). Then consider that many bluebirds nest two or three times each summer, and it is clear they are consuming a huge number of insects just during the nestling phase.

Here’s a short video clip showing the hectic life of parent bluebirds on a hot summer day.

The first bird in the clip, the male, flies out with a fecal sac after feeding the young. The female then brings in a grasshopper, checks for fecal sacs, and flies off.

While the female did most of the feeding in the two days I watched this year’s nest, the male did stay near the nest a little more. It seems there was something that disturbed him – ants. I noticed he flew to the base of the nest a few times while I was there and seemed to be pecking at something. Here is a short video clip I shot of this behavior:

When I looked carefully, I could see a line of tiny ants coming up the side of the shed and along the outside of the nest box. The male was obviously disturbed by this, perhaps recognizing that these can be a potential hazard to nestlings. On several occasions, he would sit at the base of the nest box and pick off ants as they crawled along the outside edge. Alvin was going to try to redirect the line of ants away from the nest after I left (perhaps with some well-placed petroleum jelly.)

Last spring, I photographed a different pair of Eastern Bluebirds bringing food to a nest box along a power line where I lived.

Bluebird with grub 2

Male Eastern Bluebird bringing large grub to nest box

The difference in habitat made for some different prey items, most noticeably a lot of earthworms and large beetle grubs (probably June Beetles). I reported on this nesting cycle in a blog post last year. I remember being amazed then at the quantity, and size of some of the items on the grocery list for their young.

Every time I observe birds bringing food to their young, I am impressed by the amount of effort it takes and the skill these feathered hunters have in finding and securing prey. It also reminds me of how important adequate habitat is for their survival. We can all help ensure these birds continue to thrive by planting more native plants, protecting existing natural areas, and reducing our use of toxic chemicals in our surroundings. It is the least we can do as responsible landlords to such hard-working tenants.

A Well-named Bird

…he wears a coat of the purest, richest, and most gorgeous blue on back, wings, and tail; he carries on his back the blue of heaven and the rich brown of the freshly turned earth on his breast…

~Arthur Cleveland Bent, in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, 1949.

male bluebird head

Eastern Bluebird, male (click photos to enlarge)

I finally had a chance to sit out along the power line the other morning to watch and photograph some of the comings and goings of the local birds. It wasn’t long until I heard the familiar “tur-a-wee” call of the Eastern Bluebird. A small flock gathered in a treetop along the edge of the clearing and softly voiced their opinion to whomever would listen. This distinctive call is believed to be a location note between birds – sort of a “here I am, where are you” phrase.

I waited patiently, and they finally dropped down to drink some water in the flower pot base I have on the ground (surrounded by rocks and sticks to make it look a little more natural), and to feed on the suet at the feeding station.

Male bluebird in water garden

Bluebird getting a drink

This time of year, bluebirds gather in small flocks and move through their territory feeding on insects (on warm days) and fruit like Red Cedar and American Holly berries. Males and females call to one another and I often see pairs checking out some of the nest boxes as if they are planning ahead for next season.

female bluebird on branch 1

Eastern Bluebird, female

They normally seem to get along just fine but the other day there was some squabbling going on between two pairs of the birds with one female being particularly aggressive. She would fly at one of the others in the flock and they would tangle mid-air, land a few feet apart, and do it again.

female blubird after a scuffle

Female Eastern Bluebird having a bad hair day

She seemed to be getting the worst of it as some feathers atop her head were misplaced as though she had taken a beak to the skull in one of the scuffles. This went one for about ten minutes until whatever seemed to be bothering them was settled, and they flew off together and starting giving call notes again. I guess we all have our cranky moments.

Female bluebird on branch

Eastern Bluebird female in early morning light

Bluebirds in this area tend to stay around all winter as we usually have enough warm days to cause some insects to stir, and in suitable habitat, there are a lot of shrubs and trees that have berries. I see them moving through the woods more in winter (in warmer months they tend to be just out along the power line corridor), but it may be partly due to the fact that they tend to be in small flocks this time of year and are therefore more visible.

Male bluebird on brsnch

Eastern Bluebird, male

I am just glad they are here, adding a cheery note and a brilliant splash of color to the increasingly gray and brown world of my woods.

 

 

In the Belly of a Bluebird

The Bluebird Carries the Sky on His Back.

~Henry David Thoreau

Eastern Bluebird male

Eastern Bluebird male has brilliant blue plumage on its back (click photos to enlarge)

I probably have used that famous HDT quote before in a post, but it is so apt. Although the color of a male is so intense this time of year that it exceeds even a perfect Carolina blue sky. Bluebirds are among the most beloved of our songbirds. They are beautiful, they have a pleasing song (and are one of the first birds to sing every morning here), and are readily attracted to be our neighbors if we put up an appropriate nest box.

The Dutch photo brigade "stalking" Bluebirds

Here we are “stalking” bluebirds

They are also pretty tolerant of our presence, so it is fun to spend time observing them and photographing their behavior. Such was the case a few days ago when I hosted some clients (and friends) from the Netherlands out to the house to photograph some our North Carolina songbirds. There’s nothing like the reaction of visitors from another land to help you appreciate the uncommon beauty of our everyday species such as Northern Cardinals, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Eastern Bluebirds. I put out some lawn chairs where we could observe the nest box without disturbing the birds and we managed to spend over an hour watching the comings and goings of the busy parents.

Baby Eastern Bluebirds 1

Hungry baby Eastern Bluebirds

The reason for all this activity was the five hungry bellies inside the nest box. My friends got some great images of the parents as they ferried a variety of meals to their fuzzy young. I had loaned a lens so I was just watching the procession, but was also making mental notes on where the birds landed on their approaches and what they were catching for food. I spent the next couple of days sitting near the box for an hour or two each day to photograph the dynamic duo as they practiced the art of bird parenting. So, Thoreau told me what the Bluebird carries on its back and now I have a better idea of what they put in their belly.

Bluebird with grub

Male Bluebird with Green June Beetle grub

One of their favorite perches near the nest box is a fence post. In fact, there are several fence posts scattered under the power line that they regularly use as perches for scouting the grasses for food. Two larger diameter fence posts are also favorite places for the male to subdue some of the large prey he regularly brings to the young. He is particularly adept at spotting and catching the apparently abundant large grubs of Green June Beetles. I wrote about these unusual grubs in one of my early posts (see Crawling on Your Back – Doing the Grub). Once he grabs one of these behemoths, the male Bluebird will fly to a post and begin to slam the grub onto the wood using quick up and down and side to side motions of his head while dangling the grub from his beak.

Bluebird with grub 3

Male Eastern Bluebird pauses on a branch before delivering the tasty grub to his hungry young in the nest

When the grub is sufficiently dazed, the male carries it to the nest box. I am amazed that any of the current babies can actually swallow one of these things, but swallow they must, as this seems to be one of the primary food items that the male captures.

Bluebird with worms

In my observations these past few days, the second most common food brought in by the male is worms.

Eastern Bluebird with worm and beetle

Eastern Bluebird with worm and beetle for nestlings

Often, he will have more than one crammed in his beak, and, occasionally, will add a condiment of a beetle or other insect.

Bluebird with fly

The female tends to bring smaller items – spiders, flies, and small insects (although she did bring in a small lizard, a Ground Skink, on the day I was just observing). She is much more cautious than the male and approaches the nest box slowly when I am out in the chair. She often flies behind the box and perches in a tree where it can be tough to get an image without a lot of background busyness.

Post and branch set up near nest box

Post and branch set up near nest box

To help with the backgrounds, I often put out natural perches near areas I want to photograph birds. In this case, I tapped a metal fence post into the ground and fastened a dead branch to it with cable ties. This allows quick a set up and I can easily change the branch for a different look.

Bluebird with cricket and glow worm

Female Bluebird on planned perch

The female seems to like this particular perch more than the male and often lands on it as she approaches. Here she has two food items in her beak – what looks like some sort of grasshopper and a glow worm (lightning bug larva).

Bluebird with mystery item

Female Bluebird on top twig of planned perch

On two of her trips, she brought a food item which I have yet to identify. It is an amorphous blob, perhaps a cocoon or egg mass of some sort?

Bluebird with mystery item close up

Bluebird with mystery item close up

On one side, there is some faint striping.

Bluebird with mystery item close up 1

Bluebird with mystery item close up from other side

When she turned her head, it looks almost like there is a thin veil-like cover on part of it. If anyone has any ideas as to what this may be, please drop me a note. I have seen her bring two items like this over the past two days.

Bluebird with field cricket 2

Male Bluebird from the other nesting pair out on the power line

In addition to these busy parents, there is another pair of bluebirds raising young in one of my hollow log nest boxes a few hundred feet up the power line. I haven’t spent as much time with them, but they are also bringing food to their young. I saw the female with a fly of some sort and the male brought in a few crickets and worms. It is impressive to see the quantity and variety of prey these birds capture. It is also important to understand how it can be so harmful to these, and so many other species, if the areas they forage in contain significant amounts of harmful pesticides or herbicides.

I may have another few days worth of watching until the nestlings fledge. But, I am anticipating at least one more nest from each of these parental pairs before summer’s end. Another reason that Bluebirds are a favorite of so many bird lovers.

 

More than Just Blue

When Nature made the bluebird she wished to propitiate both the sky and the earth, so she gave him the color of the one on his back and the hue of the other on his breast…He is the peace-harbinger; in him the celestial and terrestrial strike hands and are fast friends.
~John Burroughs, The Bluebird, 1867

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird male

They are a favorite bird of so many people. This one made a brief appearance the other morning while I was photographing birds out near the feeding station. He warbled a couple of notes from a high perch, then dropped down to look at some berries along the fence, and quickly returned to the sky.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

I learned a lot about these beautiful birds from an amazing man, ironically named Jack Finch, for whom these birds were a passion. He started a business that built thousands of bluebird boxes and was instrumental in helping restore populations throughout North Carolina. He truly left a mark in the world of Bluebird conservation before he left us. This one is for you, Jack.

What really makes my day is to get up early in the morning, just as the sun comes up, and hear bluebirds….
~ Jack Finch

A Bounty of Bluebirds

Bluebirds  RE-6

Male Eastern Bluebird (click to enlarge)

A friend posted a picture yesterday of bluebirds in her nest box. So I went out this morning and checked the one box I have that can be easily opened, and it looks like a good bluebird spring! The male and female were watching me as I went over to the box and opened it so I didn’t stay long and just took a shot with the iPhone instead of the usual gear, but it is always exciting to see the first babies of spring. These guys look like they are just a couple of days old at most and still in that reptilian stage of development. I am sure the cool, wet weather the past few days has made for difficult hunting for the parents but the sunshine today promises easier meals for these young.

Bluebird nestlings

Bluebird nestlings (click to enlarge)

I have four nest boxes scattered around the yard and garden area (three out in the open and one in the woods) and have seen bluebirds coming and going from all four, so this could be a very good spring for bluebirds. Looking forward to following the progress of these and the other local breeders during the coming nesting season.

How readily the bluebirds become our friends and neighbors when we offer them suitable nesting retreats!
– John Burroughs,1925

Bluebird houses

Bluebird nest box

Bluebird houses

Nest box

Bluebird nest box made with hollow log

Nest box

Bluebird houses

Nest box