"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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Purple Martin Majesty

Unlocking the secrets of a songbird’s amazing journey.


This a great article in the recent Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine about the Geolocator projects in Pennsylvania and Texas.  My friends in Texas, John Barrow and Louise Chambers have been participating.
Check out the article to find out what exciting discoveries they have made! 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Yes, They Can Climb That Pole

Last year, I visited a Missouri lady that wanted to be a purple martin landlord.  After walking around her site and advising her about ridding it of the 50+ English House Sparrows and even more starlings that were nesting in her barns, we talked about a good location for her martin housing.
She diligently wiped out the HOSP and EUST using the trapping and shooting methods I shared with her.  She called me 1 month later, very excited to let me know that she had 2 pairs of martins moving in.  I then advised her to put a predator guard on the pole where they had moved in.  We talked about the varieties of guards she could use and she opted for the netting.  I could tell she didn't believe a snake could climb the pole, but she put the guard on anyway.  Three days later she sent me the below pictures.
For anyone that is still questioning the ability of a snake to climb a round pole (or any pole for that matter), the answer is "Yes, yes they can".
I hope this helps serve as a reminder to get your predator guards out.  This bird netting can be found at Lowe's or other multiple online sites and is quickly and easily applied to your purple martin poles.
I work with the most awesome landlords!
Thanks Penny for being an AWESOME landlord!  You never know what is hunting your martins in the night.

A pretty long black snake was looking for a free meal.  He didn't find it here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Stage is Set: Milkweeds and Other Forbs Planted

After evaluating the wind, we were finally able to burn on Saturday, April 5th.  We were surprised that the majority of the grass was a lot drier than we anticipated.  I was happy about it, thinking, "yay - a more thorough burn!".  My husband, not so much.  We were able to get most of the area burned with a low & slow back burn, but if you live in the Ozarks, you're aware that you can never really rely on a consistent wind speed or direction for a whole day.  We had some very unpleasant moments of choking on clouds of smoke blown in our face and a few times we were chasing down an unexpected 6 foot-high head fire that went roaring towards an equally tall stand of ultra-dry Indian Grass.

My husband is so cute when he's panicking and feverishly pumping water on a fire that I just worked so hard to get going.  After years of burning stuff together though, I have learned though when is a good time to take pictures and when to put the camera away and grab my rake.  I really am a well-behaved, somewhat-controlled firebug. 
Wind coming in from the south, created a low & slow back burn on this acre.

After burning we dragged the field with a large cut cedar tree to remove the burnt matter and break up any remaining debris so that it can compost more quickly.  The unique shape of this area was cut out on purpose by my husband when he made the fire breaks.

This is the most northern half of the acre.

The adjoining areas in the above and below pictures have now been planted with Common and Butterfly milkweed (approximately 1000 seeds), Side Oats Gamma, Little Bluestem, Yellow and Pale Purple Coneflower, New England Aster, Prairie Blazing Star, Lemon Mint (thank you Gail!), Black-eyed Susan, Trailing Lespedeza, Hairy Mountain Mint, Wild Bergamot and Purple Beardtongue.  Every patch of bare soil is blessed with a seed or many in this case; the fire breaks have even been planted with Red Clover.

This is the southern half of the acre. 
For the west field pictured below, the winds were coming from the west consistently, right up until the last 30-40'.  Then suddenly, the wind shifted 180 degrees on us and we had a head fire for the last few thrilling, heart-pounding minutes.  It was a good reminder of why we take the time to create really, really good firebreaks, but it's still fun to create a little bit of excitement in the neighborhood and watch their eyes grow wide as the fire roared towards their property lines.

West field - this area started out with a nice back burn but ended with an awesome head fire.

The area pictured above (during the burn) and below (post-burn) was formerly a hayfield and it was very thick with fescue, then dead, dry duff after killing it.  We were suspicious that all of the fescue had not died yet so, after burning and dragging it with a cedar tree, we decided to wait a few days and see if it would pop back up for another dose of glyphosate.  It did and we obliged. 

West field - post burn and drag.

Now, we wait another 4 days until the glyphosate has dissipated, after which I will be able to spread more of my precious native wildflower seeds that still slumber in my very cold refrigerator.  But they will be on the ground soon and then we wait another year or so to see the results.  I'm sure I can find another project to work on in the meantime!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Incredible, Edible Egg Shell

After finding my purple martins raiding my compost pile two years ago and picking out the egg shells, I decided to start using egg shells instead of the crushed oyster shell that I had been offering for years.  With a 75-pair colony, I now save egg shells year round.  I sometimes feel like Forest Gump when I'm deciding what's for breakfast; fried eggs, boiled eggs, poached eggs, eggs Benedict and so on.  Regardless of the form they take, we love them and nothing goes to waste here in the Ozarks!  During the spring and summer, our local barn swallows, tree swallows, purple martins, blue birds and sometimes I think every other bird in the county comes to my egg shell trays to partake of the remains of my breakfasts!

The first year I started using egg shells, I visited one of our local restaurants to ask them to save a few buckets of egg shells from their morning breakfasts.  I live in the country, so the local breakfast joints are very small and full of old-timers.  I got some very strange looks and a lot of questions when I was asking them to save the egg shells for me and I noticed some of them looking at each other with a knowing glance as if to say, "she's feeding egg shells to birds?".  If you're not afraid of being categorized as *special*, your local restaurants are certainly a good source of a large supply of egg shells to get you started.

Eggshells are an excellent source of grit and calcium, but chicken eggs may harbor the salmonella bacteria so, I always wash and prepare the egg shells according to the PMCA guidelines here.  One of the most frequently-asked question this time of year is "When should I put out the eggshells for the birds"?  The answer is, "As soon as they arrive".

Left - my Tupperware freezer container; Right - 1 gallon Ziploc baggie full of egg shells.  After preparing the egg shells, I store them in the freezer all year just to make sure no bacteria can grow on them.
Why do birds need calcium?
Every female mother in every species on earth experiences calcium depletion of her body when giving birth.  It's no different for purple martins.  The female martins already have a tougher time than the males, often experiencing multiple copulations, egg-laying and finally, brooding the eggs for hours and days on end.  All of this will sap her energy and her own calcium storage in her bones.  The crystalline layer of her eggs (the shell), which is responsible for its mechanical strength, consists of more than 90% calcium in the form of calcium carbonate.  Calcium is absorbed from the food in the intestine.  Thus, you can see why she needs replacement calcium to help properly both form and strengthen her eggs and keep her own bones strong.  I've also observed my purple martins, males and females alike, taking crushed egg shells in to feed their young.
Providing birds with supplemental calcium helps them produce stronger egg shells and nestlings.

According to this reference:  "The diet of a particular species of bird may play a role in determining whether the species will seek supplemental calcium. For example, insects are low in calcium; therefore, birds such as swallows that eat primarily insects probably need to find additional sources of calcium. BCaP results suggest this is true. Although they’re not typical feeder visitors, 10 percent of the swallows that came to yards took shells."

How to Offer Supplemental Calcium:
You can offer calcium in either a platform feeding tray or spread out on the ground.  This site recommends the following: "The Lab's Birds and Calcium Project determines we should offer calcium on the ground and on platform feeders".
I tend to agree.  I prefer to offer them in a platform feeder for my martins as I once had a hawk attack a female that was on the ground eating egg shells.  He grabbed her before she could take off.  Fortunately, he dropped her when I ran across the yard and scared the heck out of him, but my lesson that day was to move their calcium up to a height where they could more quickly take off if attacked by a predator.
My tray is simply a drip tray from a plastic planter that I purchased at Lowe's.  I drilled multiple small holes around the bottom edges so that water can drain out.  Then I mounted a shelter over the tray so the rain wouldn't wash all the shells out.

Egg shells are not the only source of calcium that you can offer.  You can also purchase 50 lb. bags of crushed oyster shell here in Missouri at your local MFA stores.  My last bag lasted me almost 3 years, but as I mentioned, my martins show a distinct preference for the egg shells.
Offering calcium to purple martins is listed as one of the potential attraction techniques.  Having a ready-supply of calcium nearby certainly can't hurt your chances of attracting them and it's a cheap and easy thing to do, so why not try it? 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Purple Martin Banding in Missouri - 2014

Since 2011, Missouri River Bird Observatory (MRBO) has banded over 3300 Purple Martins across Missouri, including St. Louis-Forest Park, Marshall, etc.  Of those 3300, 725 were banded at my site here in Licking.  While that number includes a few adults, the majority of the bands were placed on 11 to 24 day-old nestlings.  To date, I have resighted approximately 24 of those banded adults and returning juveniles as SY (sub-adult) birds at my site, along with one at a friend's site 6 miles north and one at my aunt's site located about 8-9 miles north.
One of many nestlings banded in 2013
Of those 24 resightings, some were seen again only one following season while a smaller number of them were seen at my site for multiple seasons now.  This year, due to multiple factors beyond our control, we have decided to not band any nestlings at my colony.  The good news however, is that I am now a licensed bander, sub-permitted under Dana Ripper at MRBO and I am planning a 2014 project to do some educational outreach and travel to some of the landlords' colonies whom I mentor around this area to band their nestlings.

As the martin flies, my aunt's place is approximately 8-9 miles from my site.
I think it would be interesting to find out how many of your birds are returning to your colony each year and how many are dispersing to other surrounding sites, such as mine.  There are some requirements that need to be met in order for me to accomplish this though and I will need your help and commitment if you are interested in having your birds banded.
It could take awhile for the bird to land in just the right position, but if a good quality photograph could be taken, it could be blown up on the computer to try to get a band reading.

First and foremost, I need to know if you will be willing to resight birds during the next martin season.  I will be honest with you and tell you up front that it does take some time.  The birds aren't always cooperative when you're trying to read their bands and many times, you find yourself in an awkward position in your yard (like standing-on-your-head-awkward) and chasing a bird around your site to get the reading.  But it can be quite fun and exciting when you realize this was one of *your* kids from last year.  I find it quite fun and relaxing to settle into a comfortable chair with a good quality pair of binoculars right smack in the middle of my colony and watch for bands (a good hat is a must-have for obvious reasons).  A spotting scope is a bonus and makes it even easier.  For landlords that are quite close to me, I would be willing to bring my spotting scope over to read the numbers on the band, once you have identified a banded bird at your colony.

Prerequisites for Banding:
1. You must have housing that can be vertically raised and lowered and opened so that you can perform weekly nest checks and which would allow us to safely get the nestlings down for banding.
2. You must perform weekly nest checks from the start of egg-laying.  Two reasons for this:  1) we'd be able to tentatively schedule the banding day by knowing when your first eggs would hatch and estimating when the nestlings would be at least 11 days old or older and; 2) we would know the location and expected number of nestlings in your colony that we could band.
3. As mentioned above, a willingness to watch your colony for bands in the 2015 season is required.

Please feel free to contact me at purplemartin@centurytel.net and let me know if you're a Missouri landlord who is interested in having your purple martins banded!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Severe Weather Ahead for Missouri Landlords Tonight

Today as the first of many thunderstorms rolled through, I checked on my stump fire.  The barrel and the lid that I used to contain the fire were gone and I was a little worried that increasingly glowing-hot embers were going to start a forest & field fire, even with the rain.  I wondered briefly if I'd be able to blame it on lightning. 
Wow, was today intense or what?  Luckily, I had gone out to lower my gourd racks and housing before the winds arrived.  I have no idea yet what the speed was of those winds, but when I tried to open my front door, I couldn't because of the very strong vacuum.  I'm guessing our 80-100 mph winds, reminiscent of the tornado of May 2011 that settled over Licking and did untold amounts of damage.
As I watched my poles on my racks bend to & fro, I was reminded of why I go to the trouble to lower them.  It's better to be safe than sorry.  And tonight, we're under more threats of severe weather, specifically tornadoes --> http://forecast.weather.gov/showsigwx.php?warnzone=MOZ082&warncounty=MOC215&firewxzone=MOZ082&local_place1=&product1=Tornado+Watch#.Uz3pN1fdCkE

I managed to get the barrel and lid back around my stump fire before it caused any trouble and in anticipation of the severe weather tonight, I lowered my racks and housing a little further.
Weight added to the burn barrel - think it will stay put tonight?

Racks and housing lowered to half mast.

Middle and West racks lowered to half mast.
There's still time for you to go out before your martins get home and lower your housing.  Please consider doing so - a tornado could quickly wipe out your martin colony.
Stay safe tonight friends and maybe try Bow's approach (Bow is cool!)- protest the thunder and severe weather and maybe the worst of it will go away!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Lending a Helping Hand

It has been getting dark here around 7:40 - 7:50 PM for the last few weeks.  Friday evening it was raining and I decided I better do a quick scan of the colony with the binoculars before it got too dark to see.  Sure enough, a female martin was stuck in the entrance on her back, beak pointing straight up to the skies, just lying there squirming. It had been raining for almost an hour.  I hate lowering the racks late in the evening, as it takes a while for the colony to settle back down and hawks or owls will quickly take advantage of the low light and try to snag dinner.  Fortunately, her wings were still inside, so I anticipated a quick, easy release. 
As I lowered the rack, I saw a female martin land on the ground in front of me.  She was soaking wet and unable to fly.  She tried to get airborne, but could not - it was the stuck martin that had gotten free and flopped out. After chasing her around the yard, I capture her and wrapped her in a towel, then raised the rack and everyone re-entered safely for the night.
She stayed in the garage overnight where it was 60 degrees, in a box with some old hand towels. 

Saturday morning, after a quick health check, I decided she was good to go, so I gave her a parting gift.  She became the new owner of MO Band # E818.  With her new jewelry securely attached, I released her.  She circled 4 times around the colony and landed on her rack, refreshed from her warm overnight stay and ready to do battle for *her* gourd once again.
My newly-banded female - E818, back on *her* gourd ready to fiercely defend her territory.
I was reminded once again that it is always a good idea to do a quick scan of your housing as your martins come in in the evenings.  They are fighting for territory and it's very easy for one of them to get sideways and even upside-down in an entrance-way, with a wing or both stuck and unable to free themselves.  This little girl was lucky that I found her that night.  At the same time, I'm feeling pretty lucky that she's at my site and has chosen me to look out for her.

As the day warmed up, I kept a close eye on that rack and I discovered that she had paired up with the male that was my first arrival this season.  Remember him?  First arrival at my colony in Licking. 

Now what were the odds of that?

Showing off her new jewelry to her new mate.  They now have matching jewelry!