"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, August 26, 2017

Purple Martins at Point Wilson Lighthouse, Port Townsend Washington

The last pair of purple martins left my site around the last week of July, 2017 this year.  We had a great year, even with the frequent hawk attacks at the end and as always, I hated to see them leave.  My summer vacations are planned around my purple martin season, so after they leave, I have to find other things to do.
My family and I just returned last night from a tour of the upper North western area of Washington state.  While there, we went on a light house tour, a whale-watching tour and of course, ate tons of sea food.  There is so much to share about this trip - learning about the old light houses and when they were established, how they were protected, the people that manned the light houses along with their families, the beautiful coastline, the whales that live and/or migrate through this area (YES, we spotted Humpback whales AND Transient Orcas!!), and so much more.  But, the icing on the cake came on our very first day - August 19, 2017.
As we walked around Point Wilson Lighthouse, located just outside Port Townsend, Washington, (where they also had a great little Arts & Crafts show AND the best street-vendor crab cakes by the way!), I heard a very familiar sound.  
The martins were nesting on the Western end of the house (left side in this picture).

It was one of those surreal moments where your mind registers it before you fully comprehend and realize - you're on an upper west coast peninsula.  Right next to the Pacific ocean.  I must be hearing things.  Nope, there it is again - a familiar and very distinct male purple martin call, with the clicking at the end.  That's impossible.  As the cold northerly winds whipped at my ears, I spun round and round in the sand, until finally, I looked almost straight up and there he was at the top of the weather vane, preening in the cold, salty air, striking an oh so-familiar pose.
A silhouette that I would recognize anywhere.  Hello, handsome!  I had heard of the Western Purple Martins (Progne subis arboricola), but it had not crossed my mind that I would be so lucky to spot one, much less a nesting pair, on this trip!  Apparently, they are recovering on the West Coast - check out this link:  http://saveourmartins.org/recoveryprogram.html
and this one: http://saveourmartins.org/


As I watched and refocused my ears, I heard another familiar sound - that of nestlings begging for food - and I zeroed in on the opening in the eaves of the caretaker's house.  There she is - a female purple martin delivering food back & forth to an unknown number of young.  WHEEEE  - what a thrill, to drive all the way up to an unfamiliar place and be welcomed by such a heart-warming sight!
Aegir, the Norse God of the Ocean, is indeed a most benevolent and gracious host, providing a bewitching and beautiful front-porch view to this dauntless, courageous pair!

 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Today, I Fly

I was born on June 4th, 2017.  I was just a wee thing, with 2 brothers and 2 sisters.  My Mom is beautiful and she and Dad feed us often. Big, fat, juicy squishy bugs.  Yum, yum!  There was a funny-looking creature that kept opening our nest door and peeking in.  Mom & Dad would scream at her, but still she came to visit us a lot.  She would make funny noises and count to 5 every time time she opened the door.  Did she just come here to practice her counting?
Today, my Dad told me, "Son, it's time to spread your wings."
I could hear my friend's Mom telling him he too must learn to fly today  He didn't look too happy about it either. 
 
I even have my own personal escort crew in hot-standby.  Not too sure I really trust these guys to "help" though.
We have seen what happens to the neighbors' kids that attempt to fly at this age.  They end up in funny positions, with others pushing them off railings, porches and perches.  Still, Dad is refusing to bring more bugs, while I just continue to sit here.
Man, that's just wrong.  Where's that nice lady with the crickets when you need her?  How about counting out 5 of those, lady?  I finally decided that I would catch my own - I'm getting hungry.  Except, I haven't exactly gotten very far.  Still no food deliveries.  They said I had to FLY, they didn't specify how far!
 Well, I thought hanging out here for a big would be a good idea, but maybe not.
 Nope, definitely not.
 Even Dad isn't acting very happy about my resting here.  What?  Still no FOOD?
 Mom knows how to get me moving.  It's a small snack, but it will do until I get my bearings.
Another 200 feet and Mom finally hands it over.  One small step for purple martindom, one giant leap for me.  My future is looking bright already.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Where the Magic Happens

Hello Friends!  The PMCA has been the singular, most important source of information for me over the past 11 years of being a purple martin landlord.  This is their second hear hosting a "nestcam".  A camera has been mounted inside a nest at the PMCA's public site.
The eggs are due to hatch today - click on the link below, then the play button to watch the nestcam.  But be warned - once you open this link and see the magic, it will be hard to complete your daily chores for the next 6 weeks.
Please consider supporting the PMCA - they are THE source of the best information on our most beloved martins!

https://www.youtube.com/embed/live_stream?channel=UCv-yg6EvkNPODjM0eRg0snQ

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Message in a Little Yellow Band

How was I to know that placing a teeny, tiny little yellow band with the number "A407", on the tiny little leg of a purple martin nestling from Trendsetter house - cavity #8 on June 29th, 2011, would bring such a message of hope and inspiration to me this season?  It's funny how something I did 6 years ago - which seems so long ago, yet really not that far - can have such a meaningful impact on my life today.
I had been noticing a few martins with yellow bands on the gourd racks and since the weather was so perfect on Friday, I decided to get out my equipment and spend a few hours with my martins.  This is how I use my vacation time and where I am 100% focused on my martins and nothing else can bother or worry me - in my yard, with my martins and my spotting scope.
But there is a process to prepare for "band-spotting" work and I have a list of what is needed.  First, sunscreen - SPF 50 is required, or my first outing into the sun will result in a very charred, red nose.  Next, a few dabs of Vanilla extract around my nose, mouth and eyes to keep the gnats away from my face.  Sticky, but very effective!  I also carry a small, cheap notepad with a pencil (I prefer pencil, just in case I write down a wrong number) and a set of binoculars for the overall, initial scanning.  I love the yellow Missouri bands that MRBO put on my birds - it makes them so easy to spot.
Bob mounted my umbrella holder on the back of my 4-wheeler for me. I love this thing!  Bob and our recently-deceased friend, Bob Petersen, had come up with this clever design so that I could sit out in the sun, anywhere in my yard, during the heat of the day and spot bands or just enjoy my martins.  Yes, I'm fully aware of how spoiled I am.
The shade also helps keep my spotting scope from getting too hot.  Since it is black, it would quickly overheat in the sun and that's a bad thing for optics.  I see a lot of people on the Purple Martin forums asking what type of spotting scopes to buy to read the bands on their birds.  For me, this little Nikon ProStaff 5 has worked perfectly.  With a 16x48x eyepiece on it, I can sit right in the middle of my colony and read the numbers on the yellow and the silver (federal) bands and observe the unique markings of each individual martin.
It's especially challenging at this time of year to read bands as the martins tend to flit around from rack to rack, visiting all the other gourds and other potential mates and that makes it hard to tell to which gourd they belong.  But this time, a couple of them revealed to which gourd they were committed by the persistent wave of green leaves they were bringing in.  I was surprised that they are still bringing in green leaves at this stage of the season, with so many eggs already laid. 
This guy, Mr. A407 was packing in the green leaves for G20.  There are no words to express how thrilled I was when I reviewed his record today.  He was originally born in my Trendsetter (cavity #8) and was banded here as a nestling on 6/29/2011, making him 6 years old this year.  But what made my spotting of him really special - he had also nested in the Trendsetter for the last 2 years.  That means that he not only survived all the owl attacks on the house during that time, he also adapted when he returned this year to find the Trendsetter had been replaced by a gourd rack.  He chose to nest in a gourd this year, meaning yes, he REALLY wants to stay HERE.  Oh, welcome home, you gorgeous, daring & brave young man!  A message of Hope - not in a bottle, but in a little yellow band!
Mr. A407 - now 6 years old has lived to tell the tale of the Great Horned Owl on Gobbler's Knob.
My next ID was of Mr. C226 - now nesting in G1.  He was born here in G9 and banded on 6/10/2012, making him 5 years old this year.  Ironically, G1 is right where G9 used to be, since I moved all the gourds down one level this year so the owl could not agitate the gourds from the top level.  Now how cool is that?  Bob thinks he just likes the view of our home and the feeding tray when there are crickets and eggs served during cold weather.   
Mr. C226 - 5 years old this season.
The last band sighting was of Mr. A673 - he was banded here on 7/9/2011 as a nestling - also making him 6 years old.  He was born on the same rack where I spotted him, but I have not identified his new chosen gourd for this season yet.
Mr. A673 - 6 years old as of 2017.
Last week, I was a little worried as a nest check revealed I only had 60 pair on Memorial Day.  In previous years on the same day, I've had around 70.  Turns out, they were a few days behind this year and as of today, I have 71 pairs of martins nearly filling my 75 gourds I am offering this year.
They all seem to have adapted to the caging around the gourd racks, but it still makes it difficult to get a good picture with all the wire.  Somehow, but we all seem to work around it.
An adult female adds fresh green leaves to her nest.
The sub-adults have arrived and are causing chaos with the adults.  I love watching the adults watching the sub-adults.
"Is that your boy from last year, George"? 
One of my favorite challenges when watching my colony, is to try to identify the sub-adult males.  You can usually find them by just watching for the fights and screeching. 
A young sub-adult male.
An adult pair guards their nest from the marauding sub-adult males.


As of today, we have not seen the owl in 11 nights.  A friend from the PMCA forum has loaned me his "Dancing Man" and I am trying him out.  I have him on a timer and change the settings for him to turn on and off at different times each night. 

I've also deployed my 'hunting blind' from which I normally hunt English House Sparrows and Starlings, and I've been moving it around the yard every 2 nights.  I purchased some solar yard lights and I recharge one every day and put it inside the blind each night, slightly unzipping the portals so the owl is sure to see the "evil eyes" staring her down if she tries to enter the yard. There is no way to tell yet what is being effective in keeping the owl away, but whatever the reason is, I am grateful for each night she does not come around and I'll just keep throwing out every thing I can think of to keep her away.
For now, my banded 6-year old martins are proof there is indeed a ray of hope for my colony.  I think I need to get a bumper sticker that reads, "My Purple Martins Graduated with Honors from GHO Battle School"..... or something.  Ha!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Singing Invitation to the Kids

Ever since my first experience with getting up early to hear the purple martin dawnsong, I have been hooked on it.  I committed to getting up at least one early morning to enjoy it during each season.  Today was that day.  I got up at 3 AM, grabbed the biggest mug I have and carried my coffee out to the porch, using the little flashlight on my cell phone....which has to be the handiest thing they've ever put on a cell phone, that can only be discovered quite by accident.
This morning's early rising would also help serve the purpose of driving away or at least keeping the Great Horned Owl at bay.  As I settled in, I almost laughed out loud in the cool, velvety darkness at how loud the bullfrogs were at the pond, over 75 yards away.  How DO they manage to escape all the predators when they're making so much noise? If you're wondering where the Milky Way is right now, you will need to get up at 3 A.M. to see that one too - it's directly overhead at this time of year.  I love the challenge of trying to capture pictures of it.


A few scurrying noises around my deck made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  I can be pretty brave in daylight, but the idea of a snake, a large spider, or some other critter accidentally bumping into me in the darkness can sometimes make me feel like I'm 2 years old.
A few of the male martins were being noisy and were loudly performing their mating calls with the clicking at the end, while still in their gourds.  It's no wonder that an owl or any other predator can easily find them at night...silly birds. And what makes them think that's what their lovely lady wants to hear at 3:00 A.M. anyway??

By 3:30 A.M., I had heard only 1 bird start the dawnsong.  He zipped out of his gourd and he was up, up, and away from the colony quickly.  At 3:45 A.M., the neighbor's rooster was crowing.  I thought, "If that were my rooster, that would be his last day to crow at 3:45 A.M.".  But that must have been my martins' queue because within minutes of the rooster crowing, the rest of the Dawnsong choir joined in.  As I scanned the yard and racks carefully watching for the owl in case she tried to take advantage (we put out solar yard lights last week), a huge number of male martins exited and rose quickly in the darkness, chortling as they rose - the only indication I had that another one was in the air. 

It's amazing how loud each martin sounds as they circle high above and sing the darkness away. As the stars started to fade and my human eyes detected dawn around 5:12 A.M., the first martin returned to the racks and proceed to womp on another male that had tried to sneak into his place while he was out gathering fresh troops. Apparently, there are no time constraints for when territorial battles can be fought. 
I took this video a couple of years ago of a male martin performing the dawnsong on my racks and it is still the best video I've been able to capture of it.

Even though I've witnessed the end of the song and their returns to the racks several times now, that part never gets old either.  Close to 60-65 martins falling out of the sky, dropping into the colony, almost all at once is a fantastic sight.
For anyone that missed it, via the PMCA - the purpose of the Dawnsong:
"Gene Morton's dawnsong theory was that adult males perform it after their mate is committed and their paternity is assured - it's safe, at that point, to invite sub-adult birds to join the site, so the senior males can have extra offspring via the sub-adult females.  So dawnsong will not be performed until green leaf stage of nest building"
It must be working - as of last Saturday, May 13th, I have 3 sub-adult males.  Welcome back kiddos! 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

May Flowers, Martins and Mysteries

It is either 'feast' or 'famine' in Missouri when it comes to rain. This spring, we seem to be in a state of deluge.  With the breaks in the rain, my martins were able to get out and find food. The last 2 days of rain though were just too much for them and they came knockin'.  Luckily, I had a few crickets left and a few dozen eggs.
It appears my 'regulars' remember the drill.  The banded female below wasted no time being the first up to the buffet. 
At my house, you best not be late when the dinner bell rings though.
I haven't been able to get an accurate count with the rain keeping most inside their gourds, but I'm estimating there are approximately 50-60 pairs here right now. 
In fact, yesterday evening at 7:00 P.M. when the last weather system finally broke, I stepped out to see if my colony was doing okay.  I started to worry when I only counted 5 birds on the racks.  Finally, at 7:50 P.M., they suddenly started dropping out of the sky and into their gourds.  They had taken advantage of the brief amount of sunshine and gone to hunt and gather.  It's okay, I'm not offended they prefer live, squiggly stuff over my eggs and crickets.
I awoke today to a loud, raucous noise in my south yard - the sun was out and it was already above 60 degrees!  Yay!  NO crickets or eggs today! For the first time in 4 days, I was able to just cook a couple of eggs for myself.
As I waited for the weather to warm further, so I could do what I dreaded most today, I noticed my red clover was blooming.
And my homemade bird baths were filled with fresh rainwater.  Bob and I have finally found a use for all the landscape rocks.
After putting it off as long as I could, I started lowering my racks and checking each gourd, hoping upon hope that I wouldn't find what I feared most - dead, starved martins.  I breathed a sigh of relief after lowering the first 2 racks and not finding any.  Such a relief.  Then I lowered the third rack and was shocked at the condition of the wire.  My mind couldn't put 2 and 2 together to figure out how this happened.  And wouldn't you know it - I haven't started up the game cameras yet.
The top 3 broken wires in the picture were bent out and the one on the bottom was bent down and in, with its tip behind another wire.  "Ok, WHO taught my Great Horned Owl to use a set of wire cutters?", I pondered to myself and laughed uneasily.  Racoon?  No way - a racoon would have climbed up the pole and already been inside the cage, wreaking his havoc. Owl? Hmmm - could / would an owl hang on the cage and vigorously work over the joint where these wires were pulled apart?  Why not just fly up under the cage, instead - it would take a lot less energy to do that!  Would she really wear down her beak gnawing on the wire cage, when there was an easier approach?
I called Bob out to look at it and the ends of the wire where they were separated.  Click on the pictures below to see better closeups.  Lightning maybe?  But check out the picture above....the wires are bent in different directions....

So, other than the big hole in the cage that must have been created by some super-evolved Chupacabra animal here on Gobbler's Knob, all was really otherwise very well.  I found 5 eggs in a gourd on this same rack - but I doubt they're viable, since they were very cold and there were no martins around most of the day today to incubate them.  I lightly marked them with a marker, so I can keep track of their progress...or lack thereof.  
I'm not normally a 'fraidy-cat, but dang....
Ok fellow sleuth-bugs - so what was it? 


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Crawl, Walk and Run

It's funny how certain things stick in your head, yet you can so easily forget other significant events.  Is it a conscious effort on your part to store it in your brain because it was such a catchy statement, or was it significant because of the friend that shared the information with you?  Many, many years ago, as I was learning to grow native plants, a friend told me, all plants go through a "crawl, walk, run" phase, meaning the first year they crawl, the second year they walk and the third year they run.
I have always remembered that and as my plantings mature, it's become more evident what she meant.  The crawling and walking stages were slow.  I would explore around my plantings, carefully digging around the mulch in my bed, looking for evidence of survival and spread.
I have waited and waited and now, everything is not only running, it's marathoning.  I'm so excited!

I love Missouri Wildflowers in Jefferson City and they carry just about everything you can imagine under the sun in Missouri in both seeds and pots. While Hamilton Native Outpost is closer to me and they do have great native wildflower  & grass seed that I have purchased, they do not carry potted plants. MO Wildflowers is almost 2 hours away, but I love to go and visit their nursery twice a year to see what treasures I can find.
In Fall 2014, I bought these New England Asters from them in small, 3" pots.  Last year they grew taller than me and this year, they have spread across the whole landscape area. I originally planted 5 small plants and they have more than quadrupled.

My favorite native bush is St. John's Wort.  Now in its 5th year it has exploded with growth and there are so many new seedlings sprouting up around this one this year, I'm having to pull them to keep it from taking over.   Being so wild about it, I bought 2 others in Fall 2014 also, and now I'm wondering if that was such a good idea.

My native Wild Bergamot (also from MO Wildflowers), installed from 3" pots in 2013 has decided to spread and is trying to dominate also. These Bee Balm plants were given to me by a friend 4 years ago.  They are spreading like wildfire this year, blocking the view of my yard statue.  I hope it and the Wild Bergamot claim even more territory, eliminating the need for me to weed.

The Cardinal flowers I purchased from them in Fall 2014 are getting an early start this year and have more than doubled their size.  I just purchased another dozen and 8 here and 4 more in the field!

Three years ago, I purchased Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plugs (32 total in a flat) from Monarch Watch.  You can go here and read about their program: http://monarchwatch.org/milkweed/market/   I potted them for a year, then installed them on the bank.  These 4-year old plants have not only covered the banks now, they are spreading into the lawn.  They are aggressively claiming more space and I'm quite okay with that - no more mowing here, and the Monarchs will have a field day when they arrive.

This year, I purchased 64 plugs and Bob disked this field where we just planted them before the rains began.  Ok, I admit, it doesn't look like much right now, but you just wait.

Prairie Blue-eyed grass has popped up everywhere - which is perplexing because I never bought that seed - we've only burned the fields and voila' there it is!  Hello, to my dainty, beautiful blues!
But best of all, the Indian Paintbrush has spread and it's leaping out of the field and showing off all its wondrous, red-blazing glory.


And with all the rain today, it's really popping!  As with everything in my life, all I do is centered around the 3 main loves in my life - either my husband, my dog - Nikki, or my purple martins.  The native wildflowers we planted draw in thousands, yes, *THOUSANDS* of insects - a lot more than any non-native blooming flower.  As the weather turned a bit rainy in the last few days, I noticed my martins flying lower in the fields with their tree swallow brethren, catching the 'food' that is swarming over the native plants.

To my delight, I found the Wild Bergamot in the field has started blooming!

The pond was 'full' this morning when we woke and the martins were quiet - hunkered down for the deluge we expected today.   This year, I'm offering only 75 cavities (last years I offered 84) and right now, I estimate I am 75% full with around 55-60 pairs.  Hard to believe it's not even the end of April yet!
During a break in the rain, I grabbed my camera and ran outside to get some pictures and videos. The martins took the opportunity to exit their cavities and forage for food. But the tree swallows decided to put on the show. I'm not sure if many more just arrived today, or a new group decided to try to oust the settled-in residents.  But the 30 minute pause in the rain resulted in a Tree Swallow Battle Royale.  Listen closely and you'll hear the martins circling behind me as they come out to feed also.
As I wandered the field a couple of Canadian geese landed in the pond and while I usually don't photograph them, as they flapped their large wings to take off, I thought of a purple martin friend we lost this past week.  He loved to do bird photography in his retirement and as I thought of him, my heart said, "Take the shot...Tom would". I was very happy with the way they came out.

The rain started again shortly after they disappeared in the wet, warm fog south of our field, so I retreated to the porch.  It only took another 45 minutes and my pond had expanded waaay beyond its boundaries.  I'm hoping my fish have not decided to pack their bags and use this opportunity to relocate to the neighbor's pond just south of us.

At least for this summer, all the animals at Gobbler's Knob - and most especially my Purple martins and my tree swallows will have a bug buffet from the dragonfly populations that are sure to result from all this water and the bazillions of bugs that will visit all the flowers that now running their own marathon in our fields.