"I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." ~Wendell Berry

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Racing Time - Purple Martin Season 2017 Begins

On Saturday morning, March 4th, 2017, I got a phone call around 9 AM.  "Sorry if I woke you", the voice said.  After a few seconds, he finally said, "It's Luther"!  Oh, YAY!  "Hey, I have a scout", he said.  My mind zipped to the calendar and I realized that somehow, March had quietly arrived and I had somehow missed it.  I was excited for Luther - "FIRST TIME EVER, you've seen your martins arrive before mine", I shouted.  He was tickled.  I was tickled.  And then I suddenly realized, I've been far too busy with work to even notice the changes in the season.  Congratulations, Luther & Fonda on the first sighting of the season!  Now, I need to get busy.
Later that day, I decided to go out and enjoy the sun and make sure I had some gourds out, since I had to leave soon on yet another business trip.  It was hard to get into the spirit of the season after having experienced my most difficult year.  But, after raking up 5 bags of white pine needles and stuffing a few gourds, muscle-memory took over, along with the warmth of the sun and a bit of joy started to shine through.
That afternoon, as I hung the last gourd on my rack for the day, I heard that familiar chirp. I looked skyward and found her.  Yes, for only the second time in the history of my colony a female showed up first!  She flew circles around and around me, and as she shared her joy of being home, through tears of joy, I managed to say, "hello Gorgeous, THERE you are!"  I felt so honored, after such a devastating last year, that they would actually return to my site.  It didn't take long - later that evening, she had already found a male ASY to keep her warm at night.  Ironically, my first dude back has a pretty yellow band on his left leg, so I'll be getting his number soon.  Looks like SHE already has his number.
First arrivals - 2017 - the male in the upper left gourd is banded.

As I stood and watched them both circle my site and chirp their happy, "hello" to me, I suddenly realized that I have been way too engrossed in my job to engage in the things that bring me joy.  With all the travel and work stress, I had forgotten that this is where I find my peace and center myself.
It has been almost 3 weeks since that first pair showed up and I now have 20 martins on-site.
I am a pro at not only creating bad habits, but also breaking them and I am getting myself outside every evening when they come home and watching them as they swirl round & round the site, each circle bringing them lower & lower to the gourd racks, until they finally zip right into their own gourds and get instantly quiet for the night.  What a delight!
The Trendsetter has been taken down this year.  Even if I installed a larger cage on it, I couldn't get past the memories of last year and it obviously had become a magnet for the GHO.  Instead of digging yet another hole in the yard though, we decided to use the existing Trendsetter ground stake that is firmly ensconced in a way-over-engineered concrete hole which will definitely hold the new super system.  But first, we had to adapt the 2" square ground stake to the new 3" pole.
We were finally able to find a talented fabricator and he created a new ground stake that would help us transition the 2" ground stake to the new 3" ground stake I needed for the new Super System.
The inner measurement of the square had to be 1 11/16" to fit tightly around the existing ground stake.

The length had to be 27".  The fabricator was very clever in how he built this new ground stake up to exactly the right measurements.  He used the welds and plates to make the second outer tube fit solidly on the inner square tube, finally creating the exact size - 2 11/16"- needed to fit inside the 3" gourd rack pole.

Bob added some grease to the existing 2" ground stake to help with water and ensure the new stake slide on more easily.
Then slid on the new ground stake and greased the outside of it also.
The new rack is in place and all the arms have been mounted.  I still have some work cut out for me - this weekend, I need to install the new cage on this new system, but the worst part is now over.  Each step brings me closer to letting go of the Trendsetter and its memories and looking forward to a new season.

Monday, January 2, 2017

When Love and Despair Collide

...or maybe a better title is, "when two passions collide".  I dunno. The 2016 purple martin season was my most challenging season I've ever experienced.  It was a year where my old self and my 'new & evolved' self encountered each other and had many, many heated conversations.  Being passionate about wildlife means you have to accept many pleasant and unpleasant things dealing with life and death.
Our 23 acres, nicknamed "Gobbler's Knob" is a true wildlife sanctuary.  A sanctuary where all native wildlife, whether predator or prey, is welcome. I am blessed to have the opportunity to work from home and be able to observe the predators that frequent my back yard and even more fortunate when one hangs around long enough for me to get its photograph.
We have coyotes.

We have foxes.

We have quail (as well as many other native birds) nesting here.

We have Red Shouldered hawks.
We have an extremely fast, aggressive Sharp-shinned hawk that visits my site early every spring to help herself to the tired, migrating martins and manages to bring out the very best selection of my Navy vocabulary.

We even have our beloved national symbol visit my backyard, only 50 feet from my office window - the American Bald Eagle.

But one predator in particular - my resident Great Horned Owl - has worn out her welcome and this past purple martin season she pushed....nay - she strained the limits of my love for her.  The problems I had with her this past year drove me into deep introspection and forced me to explore my commitment to being a good steward to all things wild, possibly even shutting down my colony.
I totally understand that each and every animal is subject the predator-prey relationship.  That is the one law to which all members of nature are bound, not because they signed on to it, but just by the very virtue of their existence, they must abide by it, including me.  My reasons for not killing this owl have always extended far beyond the fact that it is illegal to do so. No, I have not killed her because of my own principles - I strongly believe we need predators to maintain the balance that Mother Nature requires.
Since 2014, this GHO has been attacking my purple martin colony.  Actually, after reviewing my records and with the benefit of hindsight to see patterns, I think it has been longer than that - maybe as early as 2012, but this past year (2016), she decided that she liked this buffet setup and upped her game.
With my monitoring setup, I knew when she first arrived at the beginning of the 2016 season.  But I was prepared - I had everything caged in and I was determined she would get even less meals here this year than she did in 2015.
"*PREVENTION is KEY* - install owl guards BEFORE you have a problem.  Radios (and cds with recorded 'home' noises, including a shot gun), flood lights, red lights on top of racks, scare crows, reflector tape, even setting off firecrackers  - all of those things may temporarily work for a week, even two or three weeks, but he/she will be back."
As she escalated her attacks every week and became more aggressive, I also escalated.  At every turn she made, I was there with a counter-measure.  Everything we tried only worked for one to three weeks, depending on the counter-measure we put in place.  I was often getting up at 3:00 A.M. to scare her off when she came for her early-morning raids; but still my principles held - I refused to kill her.  But I also have a full-time job and couldn't be out there every night to stop her and she took full advantage of my absences.
During the first week of July, she decided it was time to increase her success rate and learn how to get past the barriers that had worked very well the least few years. After returning from a business trip in mid-July, I was stunned to watch a video of her 'walking' around the exterior of the cage attached to the Trendsetter, probing the 4"x4" openings I had made in the wire, meant to make it easier for the martins to enter and exit the wire caging.
It was then that she managed to truly bring me to the edge of a cliff that I didn't want to be on as I watched the next 2 videos.  My heart broke, my chest constricted and my throat went dry.  Despite everything we had in place, she was flushing them out of the housing and grabbing them as they exited their nest boxes. Those that flushed were doomed.
In one of the videos, she dragged one of the martins through the cage hole and landed near the game camera, where I could hear his screeching until he died.  Sobbing doesn't even begin to adequately describe what I was doing when the video ended.
**WARNING - both videos below are difficult to watch, much less listen to....

As I watched from the depths of my despair, my anger flashed beyond boiling.  I thought, "I am done- I have failed them....I no longer know what to do." Even though it was daylight, I was ready to hunt her down and kill her.  My brain was on fire, while my heart simultaneously ached.  It was obvious the caging on the house was too close to the porches, but with the wind load here in Missouri and the fact it had worked for the last 2 years, I hadn't been concerned about it. I stormed through the house, swearing that was the last martin she was going to eat.  She had gone too far.
I went outside to vent my sorrow to the wind and the trees. As I stood in the yard near my gourd racks,  the activity in my colony that day belied the horrors of the night before, making me feel even more devastated.  These resilient birds who had to have heard the dying cries of their brothers, were busily flying to and fro in the hot, bright sunshine, feeding the remaining nestlings.  It was almost surreal. 
My most immediate concern was for the welfare of the remaining nestlings in the house, so, hoping that she wouldn't want to get her wings tangled up with some light-weight twine, I used some mostly-empty bottles to weigh down some twine around the remaining nests.  It worked to save the remaining adults and nestlings.
As the heat intensified that day, I watched the videos above again & again, torturing myself I suppose for losing this battle with the owl.  I deserved the torture. It took a long time to sort my feelings out - months even, but eventually, I realized I was actually more angry at myself than at her. She was doing what any owl or other predator for that matter, would do if they found an easy meal and her mind was only focused on two things - her own survival and that of her owlets which she was likely feeding at the time.
After all the anger, sorrow, despair, crying a river of tears, I received a few emails from a few friends that made me decide I need to pick up my pieces and move forward.  So how do I go forward now?  I have decided that I need to remove the Trendsetter and replace it with another gourd rack, specifically, a Super System gourd rack with a 3" pole, which will allow me to mount a larger cage that will extend further from the openings of the nests and withstand the Missouri winds better.  My Trendsetter has a lot of sentimental value for me, but even extending the cage on it at this point still allows her to flush the martins out at night and this house is obviously now her favorite target.
I have learned so much about owls in the last 2 years and if a new martin landlord asked me about owls today I would tell them, "*PREVENTION is KEY* - install owl guards BEFORE you have a problem."  Once an owl discovers that there is 'food' in those gourds / nestboxes, there will be no stopping him/her - he/ she will be relentless.  Radios (and cds with recorded 'home' noises, including a shot gun), flood lights, red lights on top of racks, scare crows, reflector tape, even setting off firecrackers  - all of those things may temporarily work for a week, even two or three weeks, but he/she will be back and nothing will stop the attacks.  The most absolute best guard against an owl is to setup owl guards as preventative / proactive measures, instead of having to always *react* and be on defense.
The first step to healing is to forgive yourself.  As Dana Ripper from MRBO emailed me, "hopefully you still produced a gazillion babies though"!  It made me smile.  It was the first positive thought I'd had on this topic in a long time.  My friend Greta Webb emailed me and said, "We can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes."  Thank you Dana and Greta...you set me back on my path.
My New Year's resolution was to forgive myself for my mistakes.  With that, I'm moving forward to the 2017 Purple Martin Season, with a look back at the 2016 - which doesn't look like it was so bleak after all. 
Enjoy the video.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Fall Dresses Up Like Summer

This has been such an unusual Fall - not at all like the typical windy, cool Falls I've been accustomed to in the past.  I'm beginning to think that Fall chose "Summer" as its Halloween costume.  With the highs averaging in the 80's last week, it was windy, but not at all what I would call 'cool'. 

The only real weather-related evidence indicating Fall really is coming is the ghostly fog that hovers over the ponds and in the lower valleys. 

Common Milkweed is even regrowing new shoots.  This picture was taken on Wednesday, 11/2/2016.  No, no, no!
Even the ever-present, persistent and invasive thistle is re-blooming.  The main shoots of these were cut off earlier in the season, thinking they would die (note the cut off stems), but the extended warm weather has given them new life. Ugghhh!!

My landscape bed is a juxtaposition of both new life and death - the New England Asters and American Beauty Berry bushes going to seed, yet the lavender and clover are re-blooming.  It feels so very weird and strange right now.

Lavender bed - 11/2/2016

Clover regrowing and blooming - 11/2/2016

We can all debate the *cause* of global warming, but it's hard to deny that something is definitely changing with our weather. Plants are re-growing and blooming at a time when they're supposed to be preparing for their winter nap, storing up energy for next spring.  I'm hoping once Fall does decide to start dressing them down, the plants will have enough time to prepare for their winter's sleep.

Now is normally the time I gather seeds from all my native plants.  I was bummed with a rather lackluster performance by my coneflowers and prairie blazing star plants this year, but I was able to gather buckets full of New England Aster branches after the flowers went to seed.
New England Aster seed heads.
New England Aster seeds after being removed from the branches.

I had never gathered cardinal flower seeds, so when I cut off the stems with the seed heads and shook them, I was shocked at all the stuff that fell out, looking more like pollen than seeds.  Not quite trusting these were seeds, I looked them up and sure enough, these teeny tiny specs are cardinal flower SEEDS!  I think I have about a bazillion of them now.  Not really sure they will all come up next year, but I have plenty of them with which I can test various methods to get them to sprout!
Cardinal flower seeds!

I bagged all the seeds I collected in a large brown paper grocery bag that will absorb moisture while they wait for me to perform my favorite winter rituals - burning off dead stuff, raking and scattering seeds!
My backyard feels so abandoned now that my purple martins are gone and all the gourds are cleaned and put away.

If you've noticed that I haven't written much over the past few months, it was because I had a very rough, emotional summer with my purple martins.  It was one that tested my principles and dedication to all the wild things I love.  It was such a tough journey and I had to come to grips with many decisions and fight many battles with my own brain and heart.  It forced me to grow emotionally - painfully beyond what I initially wanted.
I am only now ready to write about it - silly me, my healing comes with writing this blog.  Probably should have started writing about it sooner, but it was still too fresh.  I have come to the conclusion that I will be taking down my Trendsetter before next purple martin season.  This is a tough decision for me because I am so attached to that house.  Stay tuned, I'll be writing more about the events of this past summer, what led to this decision and some upcoming changes. 
My Trendsetter - washed for the final time and wrapped up for winter.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Purple Martins and The Sounds of Change

“The earth has music for those who listen.”
― George Santayana
This past weekend as I conducted nest checks (now 79 pair), I listened to the efforts of some of the sub-adult males to alert the colony of my intrusions.  It made me laugh at their silliness when they would suddenly launch themselves and try to get the others to flush with them.  Surely, that would serve to frighten and send this frequent intruder running away in terror!  I could tell who were my 'regulars' as they would sit on their perches, beaks stuffed full with some type of food for their broods and roll their eyes at the enthusiastic efforts of the sub-adults.  Ok, maybe they didn't literally roll their eyes, but figuratively speaking anyway.
How about that Green Darner dragonfly? 

As I brushed at the mites, changed out nests and counted nestlings, I heard a group of birds from my colony sound the alarm call to the west and give chase to a Cooper's hawk.  I continued with my nest check after they had evicted the intruder to a safe distance.  Apparently though, the Cooper's wasn't giving up that easily.  Soon I heard the martins chasing her in the field just south of us, then to the west and finally the hapless predator left for good via the northern route.  I knew my martins would soon return to the perches above my head and start bragging and congratulating each other over their victory - at least that's what it sounds like to this happy martin servant.
A short update on my Great Horned Owl situation- in the last 17 nights, I've only experienced 2 GHO visits.  How cool is that?  Bob has some recording doo-hicky machinery and we spent some time recording stuff around the house..doors slamming, Nikki barking, shell loading in a shotgun, shotgun firing, running on my wooden deck, dropping metal pipes on the deck, cough, cough, - you name it, we recorded it.  I also bought a cheap CD player to do repeated, random playing of the cds too.  Along with that, I bought a plethora of night lights and plugged them into a power strip that's on a timer.  Now I have my scarecrow up on the porch, cd playing random "real life" sounds and the lights turning off & on at different times.  Ironically, the only 2 times the owl has visited has been during the timeframes when I had neglected to turn on the cd player.  We're only a little over 2 weeks into testing this, but I am very hopeful.
Anyway, back to this past weekend.  As I continued my work, I thought of all the different calls the purple martins make during their 5-month stay here at Gobbler's Knob and how I can now recognize the various stages of their nesting cycle, just by listening.  Their greetings are loud and raucous when they first arrive in the spring and they sound like excited schoolchildren on their first day back at school, screeching with delight at the sight of old and new friends.  As the season progresses, the loud, persistent mating calls of the males dominate the airwaves.  Eventually, you know when there are eggs in the nests as the colony overall becomes more subdued and they get down to the business of incubation & keeping the eggs warm, except for the evening bathing, and the quiet social gathering and preening on the perches before bedtime.
At some point, the sub-adults arrive and the routines are thrown off kilter as the mated pairs adjust to dealing with the returns of the teenagers from last year.  As eggs start to hatch, I sometimes have to double check that my colony is still around as they become very quiet while fetching and delivering food to the babies.  The only indication they are still here are the black streaks across the yard of approximately 150 adults on cafeteria duty.
An SY Male (left) tries to act cool as the ASY male prepares an attack on him.
When the babies are big enough, they move to the front of the housing and their constant begging for food starts to dominate my backyard.  As my goal is to fledge as many babies as possible, the persistent cries for food are pleasing to my ears.
Mom bringing home the bacon.  Or, in this case, a large dragonfly is what's for dinner.

As of last weekend, we reached the point at my colony where the fun has really started.  As nestlings are preparing for their first flights, the colony is coming alive with the calls of both resident and non-resident martins flying back and forth, screeching to the nestlings at the entrances, providing enthusiastic encouragement for them to spread their wings and take the leap of faith.  As the adults are returning each evening with their newly-fledged broods (of which I have around 25-30 nests fledged to-date), the parents' calls reverberate off my home as they try to direct their reckless entourage of fledges to return to the nest for the night where they will be safe until dawn.  It's a good thing they start at least 45 to 60 minutes before nightfall, as it takes that long for some of them to be successful.
A family unit of martins coming home late in the evening.
One of the youngsters - a protective Dad stands watch as the youngster gets his bearing on which gourd he needs to enter for the night.

All I have to do is listen to them to know where we're at in each phase.  Check out the list below of the multiple vocalizations performed by Purple Martins (via PMCA)

Vocalization Name
Who Uses/Performs It
Description/Purpose of Vocalization
Juvenile Calls
Juvenile martins
•  Given at fledging time
•  Monosyllabic
•  Used when begging for food from parents, or when other martins approach the nest
•  Also used to alert parents that they are being harassed by predators
•  Used on their first flight
Choo Calls
•  Used when escorting fledglings back to the nest
•  Used when taking fledglings out to forage
•  Mainly at dusk
Zwrack Calls
Males and females
•  Used during alarm or highly aggressive situations
•  Given singly
•  Used when predator gets too close to the nest, causing the martin to dive-bomb
Hee-Hee Calls
•  Related to territorial defense; usually given after chasing away an intruder
•  Given in a series of 4 – 10 calls
•  Often given during intraspecific (same species) combat
Zweet Calls
Males and females
•  One-syllable call
•  Indicate alarm
•  Given in flight when martins fly away from a terrestrial predator, causing others to be more vigilant
•  Shows excitement
•  Males use this call if they see another male attempting to copulate with his mate
Cher Calls
Males and females
•  Most common vocalization
•  Used in many situations including during courtship, when showing contentment, when excited, and when approaching housing
•  Sometimes used in conjunction with Zweet and Zwarck calls
•  Given when in flight and when at rest
•  Usually accompanied by wing and body shaking
•  Used mainly during the day but also during pre-dawn hours
Chortle Calls
Males and females
•  Consists of many syllables
•  Sometimes used in conjunction with the Cher call
•  Usually when showing higher excitement levels
•  Both during the day and predawn
•  While sitting
Croak Songs
•  Main courtship song
•  Directed at mate during egg laying
•  Given both before and after copulation
•  Also performed during extra-pair copulations
•  Given in flight and while perched
•  Performed after being rejoined with his mate after being separated for a length of time
Chortle Songs
•  Heard most often during pair formation
•  Mainly during courtship
•  Given towards other females when approaching their territory
•  Only heard near the end of the nesting season, after breeding
•  Performed in a variety of situations
•  Most common after birds began feeding their young
•  Also common during roosting before migration
•  Loudest Purple Martin vocalization
•  During early morning hours to attract other subadult males, and thus females to the colony site
•  Only sung after the male has established a nest

After all we do for our purple martins; the expense, the work, the worry and frustration, peace in nature and connection with them can be found not only in the observation of their antics, but also in the listening.  I truly hope that everyone is listening to their colonies and embracing the joy and energy they share with us with each and every year.  It's not a lot of trouble - one only needs to listen.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Nest Check Season Begins and Sub-Adults Swarm Missouri

For the last three weeks, I have been swarmed by sub-adult purple martins as they flooded into my site, harassing the already-established pairs.  We must have had a banner year last year and the happy, carefree calls and antics from the sub-adult males as they try to find a mate puts a grin on my face and tears in my eyes as I stop to enjoy the sounds and raw nature of these birds as they focus on their single goal.  Last Saturday afternoon, May 21st, I decided it was the perfect weather to do my first nest check of the season.  With the temperatures being so cold during the prior week and having to feed almost 160 martins, I was dreading nest checks, but I had to know.
As I gathered my tools, the persistent cheeping of the baby bluebirds begging for food from their exhausted parents made it easy to spot this little fellow in the yard.  Unfortunately, I had found feathers from one of his brothers/sisters nearby, indicating the owl had caught one of them.  But this one's a survivor and I was about to discover how my colony was surviving too.
Bob bought a new tool belt for me to hold all the new equipment I now need for my nest checks inside the wire cages.  It has a belt clip on the back to hook over a belt or the waistband of your pants.  It has plenty of small pouches around the outside with a few clips too, and even a magnetized patch for holding screws, nuts or gourd clips.  It has loops inside the main pouch which will hold things in place and a large opening inside for holding bigger items. I've added wire cutters to quickly cut zip ties that hold the wire cage panels on the frame, 3 different sizes of zip ties for various applications, a marker for refreshing gourd numbers, needle nose pliers for pulling the stubborn zip ties tighter, and I put the zip tie discards in the middle open pouch.  As my nestlings get older, I'll safety pin a plastic bag to the side containing an index card.  The index card will be an easy, quick reference list of nest cavities with the older nestlings whose nest needs to be plugged.  This thing has room for much, much more - as long as my pants don't slide down from all the weight.

A picture of my old tool belt (things fell out of it too easily) and tool box.  I still use the tool box to carry all my nest plugs (used for plugging cavities with older nestlings), a bag full of alcohol wipes, and it also makes a nice step stool for the upper gourd levels.
The martins know what's coming when I enter the yard with my tool belt, my tool box, and my white hat, while smelling like Vanilla extract. The old-timers don't mind - they hang out on the cages and perches, awaiting their turn, while the new sub-adults flush and scream to alert everyone that surely, the Vanilla extract I'm wearing will be used create some tasty dish out of all of them.
The martins in the middle rack await their turn.  They know what's coming. But first, I have to remove the ties that hold each panel to the next, so I can slip inside.
I also use a voice recorder for all my nest checks that I pin to my shirt for easy access.  This helps keep my hands free and I don't have to deal with keeping track of a pen & paper in all the chaos too.  I've had this little thing for the last 6 years and it just keeps going & going.  With 84 cavities to check, it is just another tool that helps expedite the process.
Sony voice recorder.
With some dark days behind us with the cool weather and repeated, Great Horned Owl attacks every night, my heart pounded and I could hear the blood rushing through my veins, unsure of what I would find. 

To my delight, I found 54 pair of nesting purple martins, which is 8 pair ahead of last year around the same part of May, along with 264 eggs and 10 young nestlings.  Still, I didn't know which way my numbers were trending, so I waited another week before breathing a sigh of relief with another nest check completed this past Saturday, May 28th.  I am so excited to report my total pair number increased to 71 pair, 306 eggs and 40 young.  YIPPEEEE!!! 
Since adding the roof over the top of the house cage and extending the bottom of the wire, the owl has been visiting less frequently. I've also been going out just before complete dark and shooing the sub-adults off the porches.
In 2014 and 2015, I had 76 total pair each year and this year, I'm on track for the same total, if not more this year.  Despite the best efforts of the GHO, my martins are surging ahead with their work.  Establishing nests, finding mates and supplying food to the ever-growing number of nestlings.  During the day, you would never know what terrors they have experienced.  They may not forget the night before, but they're moving on quickly & efficiently with their lives, obviously enjoying this moment - the present.  I think I need to be more like my purple martins too - enjoy this moment, for today, we are still the survivors.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Purple Martin Sub-Adult Arrivals and an Old Friend Visits

When purple martin landlord, John Miller from St. Louis (who also manages a few public sites in Forest Park), reported a sighting of a sub-adult male on 4/22/2016, I thought he was kidding around.  But no, he was serious.  And because it was John, I knew he knew what he was talking about.  Check out his post here:
Turns out, this is his earliest sub-adult arrival ever.  I searched my colony on 4/28 and identified a rowdy, reckless sub-adult male also, along with 5 ASY banded males whose bands need to be read too!  Not my earliest arrival, but close!  On the night of 4/28, I anxiously watched as the sun sank in the western sky and 12-13 young sub-adult males and females tried desperately to find an open nest cavity.
An ASY male - banded - number to be identified (see his lower right leg).  He patiently waits as his mate-to-be inspects his new housing.
One of the sub-adult females obviously has some leucistic genes, displaying some white splotches on her head.  You can tell it's a female by her bright white undertail coverts.  The loving gaze she's receiving from all the males surrounding her is also a dead giveaway.  I've never noticed a bird with pink legs before and I wonder if that's due to the leucistic genes in her bloodline?
A sub-adult female is checked out by the eager males.  Note the white splotches on her head and her legs are an unusual pink color that I've never seen before.  I shall call her Betty Boop for her "pink stockings". 
Another sub-adult female sits nearby with perfect posture, very lady-like.  Note the very white undertail coverts on her also.  She was somebody's baby last year.
ASY male and SY female.
No group of sub-adult pictures would be complete without one of the very eager, clumsy SY males also fluttering about trying to impress the females.  Note the coloring in his undertail coverts and the purple feather splotches above his right leg and around his throat & chin.  Definitely a young male, about to take a whomping from the ASY males in the Trendsetter whose females he's trying to steal.
SY male - note the splotches of purple feathers already showing.  He will be very easy to identify and track this season.
The reason I was so anxious the night of 4/28 was because earlier in the week, the morning of 4/24/2016 an old friend had returned.  I have mixed feelings about seeing her on my game camera again.  For one thing, I was hoping she would leave us alone this year.  It is encouraging in the video that she is not actually attacking any of the housing, but simply looking like she is using the perches for hunting.

For all I know, she has been using the tops of the gourd racks for hunting most of the year, but since I don't keep the game cameras running all year due to the obvious high cost of batteries, I don't know what she's been up to.  She does look very healthy - downright fat, even.
On the other hand, it is a bit comforting, knowing I have done everything I can to protect my martins and the only way she can get to them now is if they decide to flush out of their housing.  For that, there's nothing I can do and they are on their own.  I have already found a few feathers of one bird about 100' away from my colony.  I can only hope that was from the Sharp-shinned hawk that has now moved out of the area and that was the only loss I'll see this year.  Yeah, let's just say that.
Regarding the video, I watched the ones before & after the GHO left and the patterned shadows on the video look oddly like another owl's feathers, but I cannot for the life of me, figure out how they would be spread out like that.  But they weren't there before the owl appeared or after she left.  So, is there another owl, perhaps her mate, traveling with her?  I'm not sure, but I've setup my main monitoring system now to try to watch the overall colony. Take a look and let me know your thoughts in the comments below regarding what you think the ghost shape is.

The first wave of sub-adults has definitely arrived, so I hope you have your housing open and if you're wanting to expand your colony this year, now is a good time to add more housing or gourds!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Predators are on the Prowl

As we replenished the mulch in our landscape bed by the house last Saturday, Bob told me to turn and look at who was being nosey.  She was lying stretched out on the mulch, warming her long, lovely, green-speckled body.  This is one of my favorite snakes in Missouri - the speckled king snake - (see information on them and other snakes here): http://fisheries.tamu.edu/files/2013/10/Snakes-of-Missouri.pdf.
We had scared a mouse out of the old mulch and it had run right into the same hole from which she had emerged.  I liked to believe she came out to express her gratitude; what are those lumps in her body, anyway?  Check out the description of her foods in the picture caption below - "including venomous species"!  Bonus!
Speckled King Snake, sometimes also called, "Green" Speckled King Snake - non-venomous. Foods include rodents, bird eggs, small birds, lizards, and other snakes, including venomous species. It is immune to the venom of the various pit vipers in Missouri. The speckled kingsnake kills its prey by constriction.

With the warmer weather being more consistent now, the snakes are starting to move, as well as other ground predators, including raccoons, so it's time to ensure there is protection not only on your purple martin housing, but also on your bluebird, tree swallow and chickadee nest boxes!
We had placed 6" pvc pipe on some of our 4x4" posts, but we have been moving to stove pipe now.  It seems to be a longer-lasting material and has not faded and gotten as rough on the sides as the old PVC has.
This is 6" pvc - due to be replaced by the better-quality stove pipe.  A TRES pair discuss proper territorial boundaries with another interloping male.
The 8" stovepipe snaps together easily and with a coat or two of wax each year seems to be the best protection against climbing predators.  Albeit, there is nothing I can do about the woodpeckers enlarging the holes, or rather, nothing I really WANT to do about it.  If they want to nest there, let them nest.
I know I have raccoons and snakes about, so predator guards get put on all my nest box poles, even the ones that are mounted on T-posts as the one below.  By the way, I found out the hard way - these little rubber "catches" on the nest boxes below are absolutely no match for the strong talons of a Great Horned or Barred Owl.  We found one pulled open one misty morning and the adult female and her chicks had been killed, so now I drive a screw into the door from the side to keep it solidly closed when a flying predator attacks.  

This is a great video showing some different options for predator guards for your nest boxes:
For my purple martin poles, I have purchased the 'quick release' predator guards from the PMCA.  It makes my life easier with being able to quickly remove these guards as I do nest checks every weekend on these 4 systems.  I mount the inside support of this guard as high as I can reach (I'm 5'3" tall and my reach is comfortably about 6'8" high).  These guards are then high enough that a raccoon or squirrel cannot easily get above them and climb on up the pole.

As added prevention, some people also add netting on their poles. You can purchase what's commonly called "bird netting" in the gardening section (intended to keep birds from stealing the fruit from your fruit trees) of Walmart or other stores.  The netting with the 3/4" openings are recommended to stop larger snakes. 

Scroll through these posts to see some ideas of how to mount your netting to effectively prevent the snakes from climbing your martin poles:

Other options for mounting the netting to your poles (good pictures of a very angry, large black snake from Louisiana in this post):

Please note - the netting will NOT stop climbing predators such as raccoons, so it is best to use both types of protection.  In order to keep you from having to remove multiple snakes from your netting, the netting is best placed above the metal predator guards - and if you use a good metal predator guard, you shouldn't find any snakes in your netting anyway.  Mounting it above also keeps the raccoons from using the netting as a 'boost' to help themselves get over the metal guards.  After all, who wants to go out and wrestle with a raccoon, feral cat, squirrel or possum who is tangled up in their netting?  Thanks to all these preventative measures, the least of my problems come from the ground predators.
A last note about releasing snakes from your netting; as I mentioned above, our native snakes contribute to a balanced ecosystem.  With my speckled king snake and prairie king snakes roaming about (even nesting in my landscape beds), I have yet to encounter a Copperhead around my house.

Prairie Kingsnake - Photo taken 2014, by Aya Katz, Missouri. See more of her pictures here on her blog site:  http://notesfromthepens.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-weather-and-creatures.html

Without the good snakes, we would be overrun with venomous snakes, rodents, and other prey species.  You can easily remove the snake from the netting by grasping the snake behind it's head and cutting the netting to free it (yes, you'll have to replace your netting).  Place the snake in a 5-gallon bucket and move it to another safe territory, but please, do not kill it.  Love'em or hate'em, we need more of them to keep our environment in balance.