"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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Hidden Secrets of Leaves

The trees are shaking off the last of their dead leaves in preparation for winter. We usually gather them by the wheelbarrow loads and dump them in the raised garden beds and the compost pile, turning everything under so they can help improve the soil for next year's harvest.
As I've written about before, the transition to Fall is my favorite time of year. I think part of my love for Fall is due to the decline in the tick and chigger populations.
Our favorite resident female squirrel (whom we've named, "Olivia") has been a frequent visitor in this part of the Savanna - now we know why. With the leaves gone, we can see her new nest at the top of this oak tree. Unfortunately for her, the Great Horned owl has also found her nest. Several weeks ago, around 11 PM, I was out with Nikki and suddenly the GHO flew out of the dead tree to the right of Olivia's nest, sending more dead limbs crashing to the ground. We've seen Olivia since then, so I'm hoping she has decided to nest somewhere else.

As Fall transitions into Winter, it also provides me with the opportunity to cut back limbs on trees that were allowing the hawks to hide their approaches and attacks on my martins. Apparently though, not only some limbs, but some more trees have got to go, before my martins return in March.
The hawks used this corridor to come bulleting through and surprise my colony.  (the closest tree in front is 150' from my colony)
This winter, it will be a massacre where the trees are concerned. We had a tough end of season with a male Sharpie and a female Cooper's that paired up and wreaked havoc on my colony. As much as I love my martins, I was glad to see the last of them leave in August so I didn't have to watch the onslaught.
Bob and I watched helplessly as martins were snagged in mid-flight, until we put up these barriers to help deter and re-route the hawks.
I hate cutting down trees.  It just feels so wrong. But, if my colony is going to survive and thrive, I need to make some sacrifices.  It always makes me feel guilty when I do it, as I know the resident wildlife are using the trees to raise their young.
As the trees, bushes, blackberries, multi-flora rose and the other varieties of shrubs we have here have shaken off their summer and fall colors, I have started to feel a bit better about the decision to take out some trees.  To my delight, I have found that many more birds are using the dense cover provided by the leaves and brambles, than I originally thought.
In this thicket north of my house, of blackberries, multi-flora rose and buck brush, I had to look 3 times to verify the nest in the middle of the thicket.
(to enlarge the photo, simply click on it).
Check out how well hidden this nest was - dead center of the photo.
Without the benefit of having eggs in the nest, it's always been difficult for me to ID nests, unless they're as obvious as a tree swallow or other cavity-nesting bird.  I believe this one is a robin's nest.
Nest #1 (zoomed in photo of the nest in the thicket above). It seems to have a combination of small twigs and grass.
Updated: a purple martin friend suggested "Mockingbird" nest. I fully agree!
In a nearby thicket to the northwest composed mostly of smooth sumac sprouts, another secret is revealed. This one is a small cup.  This nest is formed out of grass and leaves, so perhaps a bluebird nest?
 A zoomed in photo of the nest above.
Nest #2, formed out of grass & leaves. Updated! A purple martin friend suggests this is probably a field sparrow nest!
Only 75 feet south of Nest #2, I find Nest #3.  Another small cup nest, formed out of fine grasses and leaves too. It is fun to think about all the little birds I see flitting in & out of these thickets and how amused they must have been during the summer, as I passed by, knowing what secrets they're hiding from me, just a few feet away.
Nest #3, also formed out of fine grasses and leaves.
Following the trails we have on our 23 acres, I find Nest #4 another 100 feet south. Smaller than the first ones, but also built out of fine grasses.
Nest #4 - formed out of fine grass.

A closeup of the cup of Nest #4.
Bob found Nest #5 which was so well hidden inside this cluster of multi-flora rose and tree limbs, that I had a hard time photographing it. But still I managed to get 3 pictures, even though I needed to stop and extract thorns and wipe away some blood afterwards.  How do these little birds do it? This nest is much different than the others - a neat little tunnel formed in the middle of a tightly wound cluster of moss.  Chickadee or tufted titmouse maybe?  Either way, a very smart and wily architect - she put a nice roof over her babies' heads too!
Nest #5 - nest composed of tightly wound moss.

Nest #5 - nest composed of tightly wound moss- a little different view.

Nest #5 - nest composed of tightly wound moss
Out in the middle of the south field, tightly wound in the branches of this smooth sumac sprout, is Nest #6. It's so small...I'm guessing a hummingbird nest?  What do you think?
Nest #6
This one is very much a masterpiece, built to withstand the wind and rain, tightly secured to its supporting branches.
Nest #6 - view from the top.
Finally, in the far south of the property, we find 3 more nests. Nest #7 was firmly stationed against this tree trunk on top of criss-crossing brambles and limbs, with what looked like bits of mud, grasses and small, fine twigs. Another robin?
Nest #7 - a bit of mud, grass and small twigs in this one.
I had to laugh at all the pictures I took of the birds' nests - almost every one of them has a stem showing in the picture with buck brush berries on them. Buck brush is one of the main staples of food here in winter, so if the kiddos hatched in these nests are seed eaters, they should be doing quite well right now!
Nest #8 - 100% built out of the native grasses in that area.
Nest #8 - I give up - ideas?
Nest #9 was found among a persimmon & plum tree grove that we've allowed to grow. Another one built out of grasses & fine twigs. Seems too small for a robin.
Nest #9 - grasses & small twigs.

I was able to find 4 more nests, but they were so deeply buried in the thickets it was difficult to get a good picture. Given the multiple predators and issues I have to deal with with my purple martins, it makes me wonder how so many of these nests actually produce surviving nestlings. Seeing the numbers of birds here on Gobbler's Knob indicates they are at least somewhat successful though.
I love surprises and I love that the birds are able to keep their secrets during the summer.  But in Fall & Winter, I get a peek into what they did during the summer and imagine all the little stories that were going on, right underneath my nose - well, underneath the leaves at least.

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!


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?