Tennessee bird watching

Basics of monitoring Bluebird and other birds nest boxes

Female & male bluebird building nest.

Female & male bluebird building nest.

Female Eastern Bluebird.

The Wood Thrush Shop encourages people to be a little more involved during the period of time a bluebird, chickadee, or some other native bird, is raising their young in a provided nest box. Certainly, these birds are capable of doing all the important work themselves, but by monitoring you will be treated to a very interesting and amazing process. You may even be able to help them should a problem arise, like an ant infestation.
What is monitoring? Monitoring a nest box may include regular observation from nearby, and periodically opening the box, just enough to take a peek to see what phase of the process the nesting birds are in. Monitoring for me means doing a little of both.

Early Monitoring

· Look for signs of interest from birds. Regular daily appearances? Are they bringing nest material to the box, going in, or just perching on it for periods of time?
· Do you see competition for the nest box among different birds? You may see some territorial bouts, or some courtship behavior.
· Just observe a little each day.

Let’s jump ahead and say a pair of bluebirds has indeed chosen your nest box. Congratulations! Now how do you monitor?

· You’ve seen considerable activity by a pair of bluebirds at the nest box. When the Bluebirds are not present open the box and take a good look. What kind of nest material is being used? Bluebirds will most often use pine straw or fine dry grass. A nest may take hours or longer than a week to complete.
· Now you will be looking for that first egg. Bluebirds will typically lay between 3-6 eggs. When the nest appears to be complete it is recommended you begin looking in the nest box in the afternoons or evenings. Why? Because Bluebirds and other songbirds tend to lay eggs during early morning hours. You wouldn’t want to disrupt egg laying. Not that a bluebird would abandon the nest site because of one disruption but repeatedly could be cause. They will lay one egg per day until complete.
· Only after the female has laid the last egg will she begin incubating. Let’s say on the 4th day of monitoring the box you see a fourth egg. I would recommend you do not look on the 5th day in case 4 is where she stopped and is already incubating. Now is the time that I usually refrain from looking in the box unless I have witnessed her leaving the box temporarily to get some food and to stretch. Take note of how many eggs there are and their color. Bluebirds usually lay blue eggs, but sometimes they are white. I continue to observe from a distance, or a walk by close enough to be able to see something that might be of concern.

Bluebirds usually lay four to six eggs. They can range anywhere from off white to light blue to this bright turquoise.

Bluebird nests mainly consist of dried grasses. Dried pine needles are seen often too.

When you are certain the last egg was laid on a particular day, or the next, mark on your calendar, or smart phone, “14 days until hatching”. The female will incubate between 12 and 14 days at which point the babies will begin to hatch. Again, afternoons will be a better time to open the box to monitor. With cool nights and mornings the female will still be sitting with the chicks keeping them warm.
The Fledgling Period
For the next 15 to 18 days the baby bluebirds will be going through tremendous change. Again mark on your calendar the approximate day they will fledge from the box. Just 15-18 days after hatching! Daily brief looks in the box is fine. You may choose to look every two or three days.

Just hatched Bluebirds.

Starting to grow feathers. 5-7 days in.

Starting to grow feathers. 5-7 days in.

Almost ready to fledge. 14-16 days in.

Almost ready to fledge. 14-16 days in.

· You will see naked baby birds with eyes close during the first days. Near the end of the first week they will increase in size and begin developing their first feathers.
· By the 9th or tenth day they will be feathered but the feathers continue developing. By this time the babies will have more than three quarters of their final body weight. You may be able to determine the sex of the babies based on color of wing feathers. Those of the male will be bright blue, while females a pale gray-blue.
· At around the 12th or 13th day the babies are quite active in the nest and you may see signs of heads poking out of the entrance hole getting a look at the world. It is at this time we recommend not opening the box to look at them.They may be developed enough to leave the box if frightened.
· Keep observing from nearby and look for increased visits from the adults feeding young.
· In another couple of days babies will be ready to leave the box. Usually it takes a couple of hours for all the babies to finally leave where they will remain in a loose group, staying hidden in trees while the adults continue to tend to their feeding needs.

Congratulations, you have successfully monitored your Bluebird box. Now pull out the used nest material and be prepared for the next pair of birds to come along to begin nesting.

Spring Migration

Spring migration is in full swing which means there will be a lot of great birds to see if you spend a little time looking in any of our wonderful parks, on area greenways, and even in your own backyard. Get your binoculars out and your ears ready because the neo-tropical migrants will be passing through middle Tennessee on the way to their summer breeding areas.  Warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, swallows, hummingbirds, and many other species are there for the viewing if you invest some time.  Early in the morning, between 6 am and 10 am are typically best because many of these species travel at night then settle down in the mornings to feed and rest.  For daily sightings reports you may want to subscribe to TN bird.org, or visit Tennessee Birding’s Facebook page.  There are links to these sights on our website.

We are only days or a week or so away from the first Ruby-throated hummingbirds to arrive, or pass through the area. Don’t get too eager with putting out several hummingbird feeders, though.  While you may see one or two early hummingbirds they are not usually very interested in the feeders.  One feeder with a small amount of nectar is sufficient.  For up to date information of migrating hummingbirds you may visit www.hummingbirds.net/map. Also a great site for hummingbird information is www.hummingbirdresearch.net

At your seed feeders, around mid-April, expect to see the always popular Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo buntings.  Most years the Grosbeaks can be seen for about a month before they move on to their breeding grounds, usually well north of us.  Of course American goldfinches are here in abundance year round but the males are beginning to put on their bright yellow spring plumage. Your feeders may have gotten a little slow of late as many of our local resident birds are spending much of their time courting and finding nest-sites. So now is a great time to give your feeders a little cleaning. Soon, though, feeders will explode with activity. As the breeding season progresses, many birds will take great advantage of feeders for a quick and easy food source.  It is during this time birds expend a tremendous amount of energy so the feeders become very important to them.  In my yard I will see suet consumption double during the spring months.

Noting the size and shape of the bird, primary colors, stripes, streaks, spots, and anything particularly unique is key to identification.

So, get out there and see some birds you haven’t seen before.

A Few Bird Watching ID tips:

Ø  Binoculars are essential.  You cannot see real detail on a bird without the magnification of a binocular. 

Ø  Initially, spend less time looking in your field guide and more time looking at the bird.  Committing to memory, or jotting down details should be first priority.  Noting the size and shape of the bird, primary colors, stripes, streaks, spots, and anything particularly unique is key; beak shape, wing shape, and behaviors too.  The type of habitat the bird is seen in is often overlooked by novices.  The type of habitat can sometimes confirm or deny the type of bird being seen.

Ø  After that is when the field guide comes in handy. Instead of going through page by page, narrow down what family the bird is likely in based on the information from initial observation.

So, get out there and see some birds you haven’t seen before.  It’s fun, interesting, and it gets you moving outdoors.  If you’re stumped by a bird you’ve seen come in and we’ll be glad to help you figure it out.  

Tips for Feeding Bluebirds

Picture taken out back of the shop.

Male bluebird getting as many worms as he can.

Maybe you saw our video we posted last week of the three handsome male Bluebirds eating mealworms on our loading dock (it's also re-posted below).  If you haven’t you can can see it in last weeks blog titled Get Ready For Bluebirds and for more videos visit our you tube channel.  And now you are interested in getting started.  Eastern Bluebirds feed primarily on insects and berries so feeding them can be a little tricky.  We have a great deal of experience feeding bluebirds and would like to pass on our tips and tricks to help you have success. 

We at The Wood Thrush Shop would never suggest that the way to attract Bluebirds is with mealworms.  Mealworms are really the second part of the equation.  We would always recommend that one attracts Bluebirds first with nesting boxes.  Feeding them then becomes a lot easier.  Why? Because natural food sources for Bluebirds are literally available everywhere they travel.  Nest-boxes are not.  Their need for nest boxes takes precedence during the breeding season and will bring them to your yard more predictably and reliably, and for several months.  

When Bluebirds begin checking out a nest-box that is the best time to begin offering the kind of food they prefer, like live mealworms.   The type of feeder to use is really not very important.  I use a small clay dish which is placed on a large rock easily seen from the nest-box, maybe 10 feet away.  Platform type feeders tend to work very well.  We can show you several Bluebird feeder types we stock. 

When I see the first signs of Bluebirds showing interest in the nest-box that’s when I bring home the mealworms and look for the first opportunity to walk out to the feeder and offer a small amount of worms, maybe a dozen.  THIS IS IMPORTANT!  The key is I make sure the Bluebirds are there to see me make the offering.  Most times, over the many years I’ve done this, I have immediate success.  They fly right down to the dish and gobble them up.  I’ll repeat this little scene every time the opportunity arises over the course of a few days or a week.  Usually 3 or 4 times is enough for the Bluebirds to catch on to what you are doing.  If during that first offering they fly away do not leave the mealworms there.  The longer the worms are there the greater the likelihood that a Robin, or Mockingbird sees them.  If they catch on to this offering feeding the Bluebirds will then become almost impossible.  So, keep the offerings minimal until the Bluebirds really catch on.  Then you can increase the amounts of mealworms being offered as they raise their young.  Soon they will be waiting for you, or even seeking you out in your yard as I’ve experienced in the past. 


Ø  Offering mealworms when Bluebirds are not present is a sure way to feed a lot of other birds.  Wait until you see them before offering.

Ø  If birds that you do not want are getting the mealworms suspend offering the mealworms for a few days or more and start over using the suggestions we’ve outlined.

Ø  Bluebirds may partake of other foods like dried mealworms, suet, Bluebird nuggets (a type of suet), raisins, blueberries, chopped apple and grape.  Experiment and let us know your results.

Ø  Location is important.  Don’t try to feed them near birdfeeders or a place that gets a lot of bird traffic.

Ø  Some people employ the method of making a sound, like whistling, while they offer the worms.  Like Pavlov’s dogs Bluebirds will key in on the sound and associate the treat about to be given them.  I’m convinced that the Bluebirds we fed behind the store one year became familiar with the sound and sight of my truck arriving in the morning.  As soon as I would get out of the truck they would be landing on perches waiting for me to enter the store and bring out worms.

Remember, Bluebirds will not become dependent on the mealworms but will simply take advantage while they are offered.  You may suspend feeding them any time and not worry that they will starve.  

Bird Bio: Brown Creeper

I recently had the pleasure of spotting one of my favorite, but seldom seen, birds of winter, the Brown creeper.  It is not a rare bird to be seen but elusive for sure.  Every winter I get a few glimpses of a Brown creeper heading up the trunk of a tree where I have a suet feeder.  This is the only species that we have that only goes up a tree and never down.  It has an unusual way of foraging for food by creeping up a tree and then dropping down to the base of another tree and spiraling up. It’s very interesting to watch.  It’s found as an uncommon winter resident statewide October to April.  Brown creepers are very small and slim, and quite well camouflaged keeping to trunks of trees.  They are brown above and whitish below, with a slender de-curved (downward curve) bill.  Like a Carolina wren they have a prominent white eye stripe.  Brown creepers are primarily insect eaters but suet seems to be its preferred food at feeders, probably because it is found often on trunks of trees. So, next time we have a little inclement winter weather, that’s when they seem to appear, watch your suet feeder a little more closely. Look for this interesting and elusive little bird.

AND…check out the video I recently took of a Pileated woodpecker taking advantage of a water fountain in my yard.  It’s always a treat to see this bird and observe its interesting habits and behaviors, not to mention its stunning plumage, but it was especially nice to see it drinking.  I had never caught one using one of my water sources before. 

The Fall Slowdown

Have you noticed a lack of bird activity at your feeders in the last few weeks? It’s not anything you’ve done wrong and there is nothing wrong with the seed, it’s the seasonal transition that makes birds scarce at feeders. 
This time of year many of you will notice an abrupt and sometimes dramatic slowdown at your feeders.  You may even notice some species become practically non-existent.  Bird feeders in September and October are typically very quiet. This is normal and understandable.  With thebreeding season well behind them birds are now in less need of a quick, easy food source like your feeders.  While raising their young during the months March through July birds expend great energy and will take full advantage of backyard feeders.  We sell far more seed and suet during those months than we do even in winter.
Let’s not forget that the food birds get at your feeders is really only a supplement to their natural diet.  They do not become dependent on feeders.  Their frequency of visits to feeders is based largely on what is going on at that time in their life-cycle, seasonally and environmentally.  Your feeders are slow at this time of year because the breeding season is over and adults are not raising and feeding young, and practically all plants; weeds, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, are producing seeds, nuts, and fruit.  Birds are taking advantage of the bounty nature is providing them.  Nature provides all this food in the fall to help wildlife get through the winter.  They are busily feeding and storing food for the months to come.  Will this be a tough winter? The birds likely know.
So don’t worry that you are not seeing many birds around the feeders right now.  It is totally normal. About the time we get the first frost or two you will begin to see a return of your favorite birds to feeders.  And be on the lookout for our winter birds like Purple finch, Pine siskin, Red-breasted nuthatch, and White-throated sparrow.
Although there are fewer everyday hummingbirds are still being seen.  Keep at least one feeder going and keep the nectar fresh.