"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

Monday, July 28, 2014

Purple Martins - Lessons Learned This Year

As I completed my last two nest checks of the year and reflect on the lessons I've learned this past season, I can think of a couple of things I wanted to share:
Lesson #1: Always assume you have an owl problem. If you don't have one right now, you will soon enough.
     a.  Plan accordingly. Protect your housing.  Period.

Lesson #2: I have learned that a combination of nest changes and Sevin dust (added to the new, fresh nest) work best to help reduce the population of mites.  This year, the mites were particularly numerous.  I also learned that they will rain down on you when you are winching down your gourd systems.  Wear a hat or scarf over your hair.

Lesson #3: Always assume that a mite has landed / crawled on you after you have conducted a nest check or lowered your systems to inspect the gourds / housing.
     a. Given that you are now contaminated, know that anything you touch will also be contaminated.  Hence, the lack of pictures for this post.  There was no stopping for a photo op after learning this lesson.
Last month, after doing 20+ nest changes in one session, I grabbed the hose to wash my arms off with high-pressure water.  One week later, I picked up the same power nozzle to wash out a few containers and found the nozzle covered with mites.  It was a good thing Mr. Freeze didn't touch that nozzle first, or he would be on medication and covered with insecticide right now.
Lesson #4: Fill a bucket with water and have a bar of soap and an old rag next to it to use after nest checks. In the interim, put a supply of alcohol-soaked (Isopropyl alcohol, not the drinking kind) in your nest-check kit.  I had thought about putting in an outside shower, but the cost was going to be too steep.  I may still put in one of those camping shower bags, but for now, a bucket of water, a bar of soap and an old rag will have to do.
Lesson #5: DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING after conducting a nest check!  Usually, after completing a nest check, I try to calmly walk back to the house and strip in the garage while  Mr. Freeze opens all the doors, turns on the shower and gets out of my way.  It could only turn out badly if I had to touch any of the aforementioned items on my way to the shower.  But I'm only calm on the outside, so that he doesn't panic - on the inside, I'm screaming, "OH.MY.GOD!!! Get out of my way!!!".  Funny how a hot shower & soap can soothe that all away.  :-)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Not Quite Yet

As of today, I only have 5 nests with young that have not fledged.  It has been getting pretty quiet around here during the day.  About 90% of my colony has left to start their migration.  I've been very surprised during the evenings when 6-7 nests of newly-fledged martins return with their parents to stay the night.  I counted at least 30 birds coming in tonight, with 7 new fledges cramming themselves into one gourd.  Hopefully, they've been told the stories and will keep the partying to a minimum tonight.

I have been fortunate this year with only 2 or 3 jumpers.  Without banding it's difficult to tell whether it's the same guy.  Actually, I don't know that I should call him a "jumper" so much as a "failed launch".  I had to chase him around the gourd pole twice in the rain and by then we were both soaked, so I put him in the garage until he dried. The rental price for anyone staying in my garage is to hold still while I take a photo.  He looks stubborn.  Almost defiant. Good.

With all the owl trouble and fledging going on, I haven't had much of a chance to keep up with nest checks and really thought everyone had at least left the Trendsetter.  So, when I saw an ASY male & ASY female martin entering house cavity #1 yesterday, I was surprised to find these four darling, 7-day old nestlings that will not fledge until around 8/5 to 8/9.  The mom & dad of these kiddos deserve medals for courage and bravery.  You've all seen the nighttime videos.  They lived it, yet they hung in there when the beast was shaking and beating his giant wings against their home, threatening to make a meal out of them, yet here they are feeding 4 little winged wonders!  Hooray! 
Speaking of my Great Horned Owl, we have not had an attack for 8 nights now.  Yes, a full 8 nights.  I can't even begin to express to you how happy it makes me to pull the cards out of the game cameras every day and find...nothing.  Nothing except normal, delightful daytime photos & videos of my martins flitting around trying to get their stubborn children to fledge.  Normal!  I do enjoy normal!

I'm not sure if the addition of Ellie Mae to my yard along with the radio & bright lights has kept him away, or my random visits at night with Ellie Mae, or just the fact that the noise level has significantly dwindled here over the last 8 days has caused him to avoid us or lose interest.

Whatever it is, I'll take it, but I can't really breathe a sigh of relief until the 4 darlings pictured above are winging south with their parents.  Until then, Ellie Mae and I will continue to be vigilant.  August sure seems like a long way away right now.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Playing Chess Instead of Checkers

Make no mistake over this writing - I am extremely distressed over this issue, but this is how I deal with my distress - I write to make myself feel better. When I was a small child, my grandfather taught me to play checkers.  As I matured, he taught me to play chess and it was obvious that chess required a lot more thought, planning and strategy in order to win.  I loved it, especially the knights and bishops pieces as their moves were the more complicated and aggressive on the board.  I never became a pro at the game, but I learned a lot from it that I now apply to real life.

If someone or something presents a smart move to you, make a smarter move in return.  That's the way I feel about my dealings with this owl.  I'm still not 100% sure, but believe my owl to be a Great Horned Owl - one of the most aggressive owls around.  In chess, the best games are played against a knowledgeable, respectable challenger.  Well, I think I have met quite a respectable foe in my current battle to protect my martins.  They don't call them "wise, old owls" for nothing.
Great Horned Owl image: National Geographic Online
From the All About Birds site:
Renowned for ferocity, Great Horned Owls kill and eat small to medium mammals of many kinds, especially hares and rabbits. They eat mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, woodchucks, bats, weasels, and the occasional domestic cat. Great-Horned Owls also eat skunks, which are sometimes such a prominent part of the diet that both bird and nest may smell of musk. Although mammalian prey typically comprise more than three quarters of the diet, more than fifty species of birds have been recorded as prey. In addition to hunting small songbirds, Great Horned Owls have been known to eat large birds such as grouse, herons, ducks, Canada Geese, hawks (including Red-tailed), and even other species of owl. A woodland with resident Great Horned Owls usually lacks any other raptors in the immediate vicinity.
Well, that may explain what has happened to some of the feral cats that have been roaming around here lately.  If I were an owl, I would prefer a larger return for the amount of effort required to hunt - a meal such as a cat or rabbit rather than a scrawny little songbird.  What is it about my purple martins that makes him want to come after them so aggressively anyway?  Do they taste like lobster or some other special delicacy?
My first moves in response to the owl were to put up the wire fencing around my Trendsetter and the array of garden stakes around my gourd racks.  We had multiple days where the owl did not make an appearance, then when he did show up, the game camera pictures showed him using the tops of the racks as perches from which he was hunting for ground-dwelling prey.

Then one night, he upped the ante - I found a bent garden stake in front of 2 gourds, which I replaced with an even thicker stake. As the stake he grabbed was just out of view of the game camera, I was unable to see what had happened, but I did verify that the martins in those 2 gourds were safe & still feeding their young.  In response to his move, I decided to stand watch and wait for him and hopefully give him a good scare.  He flew through my yard at 9:10 PM on 7/4, circled to some trees and at 9:25 PM, he returned to perch on the perching post, 20' from my martin housing.  I flipped on all the lights, including my million-watt spotlight and ran at him, screaming a lot of words that probably shouldn't be printed here on my blog.  Regardless, he left in a hurry.  Despite my feeling of victory in the battle that night, I knew that the war was not yet over, but I still hoped I had provided him with something to think about before he landed here again.
As most of you know, he upped the ante again on the nights of 7/7 and 7/9, challenging the integrity of my wire cage on the Trendsetter and flushing out several martins.

While these videos have indeed been alarming to me, I saw his increased aggression as another challenge to which I needed to rise and hopefully, respond with something even better which will perplex and discourage him.  As of yesterday, we had 3 peaceful nights with no owl attacks, but knowing that he is probably not done with me or my martins yet., I built a scarecrow and christened her, "Ellie Mae" before sticking her out in the yard to stand guard duty last night.
As I sat with Ellie Mae in the yard last night, I saw a large bird with a large pair of wings silhouetted against the southern horizon moving steadily northward toward my colony.  "Holy Moley - he's bigger than I thought - not tonight - you will NOT eat martins tonight!", I thought.  Grabbing my spotlight as I rose and tensing in preparation to start my own running, screaming, scary attack, I stopped mid-step as my eyes identified my attacker - and I allowed the Great Blue Heron to pass, unmolested by my colorful words and lights.  I did find it odd though that after flying another 5 seconds north of my house, the heron suddenly turned 180 degrees, emitted her own alarm calls, and flew back southward.  What had scared her?  Had she spotted my owl perched in a tree north of the house and changed course?  I'll never know.
All the game cameras confirmed today that we have now been 4 nights without any night visitors.
Whether Ellie Mae is helping or not is yet to be determined.  I'll move her around the yard to different spots, keep playing the radio and keep the lights on all night.  If anything does happen, I'm sure I'll be dismayed, saddened, alarmed and very, very upset again.  But I will regroup and deal with it.
For now though; "Dear Mr. Owl - Your Move". 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Caught in the Act

I've been monitoring my colony pretty closely and even ran the owl off the perches on Friday, 7/4.  I had to leave for a business trip last Sunday however, so my husband was leaving the radio and porch lights on to try to keep him frightened away.  Upon returning today I pulled the game cards out of my cameras and was quite alarmed to find these two new videos of the owl attacking my Trendsetter.  I've had a lot of fledging going on this week, so I suspect he was after the new fledges that often hang out on these porches at night.  He obviously left empty-clawed but, he's definitely shaking up the tenants of the house.

This one happened early in the evening on 7/7/2014.  You can click on the YouTube icon in the picture and embiggen them for better viewing.

This one happened 2 nights later.

Looks like I'll be staying up late in the evenings until all the martins are gone now.