"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, 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.