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.

Bird Bio: Yellow Billed Cuckoo

While playing golf last week I was treated to a nice long look at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  Sometimes my best birding happens when I’m not even trying.  What a beautiful and interesting bird.  I’ve seen them before but never much more than a glimpse as this species stays very well concealed in tree tops and heavily vegetated areas. 

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a common summer resident in TN arriving from Central and South America in April and departing by mid-October.  They are seen, but more often heard, in deciduous wooded areas.  Large caterpillars are its preferred food.  The tent caterpillar may be its favorite. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a long slender songbird about 12” in length.  They are tan to gray above and white below with rusty brown wing edges, and has bold white spots on the underside of its tail.  The bill is long and decurved (curves downward), the lower mandible is yellow.

While many of you may never see this bird you may be hearing it on a daily basis and not even know it.  To describe the call is a bit difficult.  It is a rapid throaty kind of knocking sound.  Click here to listen to a sound clip on allaboutbirds.org

Hummingbirds In The Spring

Male Ruby-thoated Hummingbird.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Based on frequently asked questions at the store there's a lot of confusion surrounding Ruby-throated hummingbirds and the first few months they are here.  It is true Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin migrating through and into TN as early as mid-March.  This year the first reported sighting by a customer was March 30.  My first sighting was April 6th.  By the way, I've recorded first of spring (FOS) hummingbird sightings for over 20 years and it's always between April 3 and April 12.  And it's always been an adult male. 

Although all Tennessee, summer resident hummingbirds are here by mid-May, most people will see very little of them and activity at feeders will be minimal and infrequent until at least early to mid-July when  there is a sudden surge in activity.

It is thought by many the reason for this sudden surge is they have just "come back" from where they've been.   Actually, it is that the summer resident hummingbirds have concluded raising one or even two broods of offspring and are ready to begin taking advantage of the free nectar in the feeders you've provided. Also, the added activity is indicative of recently fledged hummingbirds beginning to understand and visit the feeders. 

It must be remembered, hummingbirds don't travel all the way from central and south America because there are hummingbird feeders here.  They do not NEED the feeders but will certainly take advantage of them when they are ready.  Hummingbirds have been migrating here for a few thousand years to breed and to take advantage of the abundance of insects, which is their primary food source.  They would come here even if hummingbird feeders did not exist.

Since hummingbirds feed on small insects an alternative way of feeding them is available.  Try placing some fruit in a mesh sack and hang it near your hummingbird feeder.  The fruit will draw fruit flies which the hummingbirds will readily devour.  It is quite interesting to see a hummingbird dart its specialized tongue out to snag the flies.

Hummingbirds and Nectar

A question frequently asked at The Wood Thrush Shop is “what nectar is best for hummingbirds”?  The best nectar you can offer hummingbirds is a simple 1 part sugar to 4 parts water solution.  It is not necessary for the water to be brought to a boil before adding sugar.  The nectar is ready after the sugar has been stirred in and fully dissolved.  Do not add color. Color is absolutely unnecessary and potentially harmful. When hummingbird feeding activity is slow, like it tends to be in early spring, make small amounts and avoid refrigerating large quantities.  Think in terms of making fresh nectar each week in small amounts until feeding activity becomes vigorous, like it does in the latter summer months.  This is when it makes sense to make larger batches and refrigerate extra nectar.  The peak time for hummingbird feeding activity typically starts mid-July and lasts through September, and even into October. 

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.  

Product Profile: Extended Reach Poles

erva long reach poles.jpeg

Ever try putting your squirrel proof feeder on a shepherd’s pole just to find out that it isn’t as squirrel proof as it should be? It’s not the feeder but it is the wrong pole that’s the problem. A squirrel proof feeder like the Squirrel Buster is very effective on the right pole and less effective on the wrong pole. The main thing to consider when pairing a weight activated squirrel proof feeder with a pole is how far your feeder hangs away from the pole. If it hangs too close squirrels may gain access by leaning out to the feeder leaving most of their weight on the pole, thus not triggering the feeder to close. Most feeders recommend a measurement of 14”- 18” from pole to hook. This ensures the squirrel climbs down on, or jumps to the feeder putting his full weight on the feeder. We have a few long reach options here at the shop that work great with the various weight activated feeders. The extended reach pole gets your feeder an ample 20” out from the pole and even allows for an extension to make the pole taller. This pole is also available in a deck rail mount option. We also have a super duty Shepard’s pole that has a 16” reach. This pole is great for larger feeders and is available in single and double hook options.

As always if you are having trouble with squirrels on your bird feeders stop by the shop and we will be happy to help.