"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

Showing posts with label hosting purple martins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hosting purple martins. Show all posts

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.

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!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Racing Time - Purple Martin Season 2017 Begins

On Saturday morning, March 4th, 2017, I got a phone call around 9 AM.  "Sorry if I woke you", the voice said.  After a few seconds, he finally said, "It's Luther"!  Oh, YAY!  "Hey, I have a scout", he said.  My mind zipped to the calendar and I realized that somehow, March had quietly arrived and I had somehow missed it.  I was excited for Luther - "FIRST TIME EVER, you've seen your martins arrive before mine", I shouted.  He was tickled.  I was tickled.  And then I suddenly realized, I've been far too busy with work to even notice the changes in the season.  Congratulations, Luther & Fonda on the first sighting of the season!  Now, I need to get busy.
Later that day, I decided to go out and enjoy the sun and make sure I had some gourds out, since I had to leave soon on yet another business trip.  It was hard to get into the spirit of the season after having experienced my most difficult year.  But, after raking up 5 bags of white pine needles and stuffing a few gourds, muscle-memory took over, along with the warmth of the sun and a bit of joy started to shine through.
That afternoon, as I hung the last gourd on my rack for the day, I heard that familiar chirp. I looked skyward and found her.  Yes, for only the second time in the history of my colony a female showed up first!  She flew circles around and around me, and as she shared her joy of being home, through tears of joy, I managed to say, "hello Gorgeous, THERE you are!"  I felt so honored, after such a devastating last year, that they would actually return to my site.  It didn't take long - later that evening, she had already found a male ASY to keep her warm at night.  Ironically, my first dude back has a pretty yellow band on his left leg, so I'll be getting his number soon.  Looks like SHE already has his number.
First arrivals - 2017 - the male in the upper left gourd is banded.

As I stood and watched them both circle my site and chirp their happy, "hello" to me, I suddenly realized that I have been way too engrossed in my job to engage in the things that bring me joy.  With all the travel and work stress, I had forgotten that this is where I find my peace and center myself.
It has been almost 3 weeks since that first pair showed up and I now have 20 martins on-site.
I am a pro at not only creating bad habits, but also breaking them and I am getting myself outside every evening when they come home and watching them as they swirl round & round the site, each circle bringing them lower & lower to the gourd racks, until they finally zip right into their own gourds and get instantly quiet for the night.  What a delight!
The Trendsetter has been taken down this year.  Even if I installed a larger cage on it, I couldn't get past the memories of last year and it obviously had become a magnet for the GHO.  Instead of digging yet another hole in the yard though, we decided to use the existing Trendsetter ground stake that is firmly ensconced in a way-over-engineered concrete hole which will definitely hold the new super system.  But first, we had to adapt the 2" square ground stake to the new 3" pole.
We were finally able to find a talented fabricator and he created a new ground stake that would help us transition the 2" ground stake to the new 3" ground stake I needed for the new Super System.
The inner measurement of the square had to be 1 11/16" to fit tightly around the existing ground stake.

The length had to be 27".  The fabricator was very clever in how he built this new ground stake up to exactly the right measurements.  He used the welds and plates to make the second outer tube fit solidly on the inner square tube, finally creating the exact size - 2 11/16"- needed to fit inside the 3" gourd rack pole.

Bob added some grease to the existing 2" ground stake to help with water and ensure the new stake slide on more easily.
Then slid on the new ground stake and greased the outside of it also.
The new rack is in place and all the arms have been mounted.  I still have some work cut out for me - this weekend, I need to install the new cage on this new system, but the worst part is now over.  Each step brings me closer to letting go of the Trendsetter and its memories and looking forward to a new season.

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.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Everything is Out of Sorts Today

We have gotten a lot of rain in the last couple of weeks - most of it in the last 2 days.  Today, I feel like everything is out of sorts, as my Grandmother used to say.  Nothing feels right.  After almost 2 years of drought, I thought we were going to lose all our fish in our ever-shrinking pond this summer.  But now it's overflowing its banks - way out of bounds.  I now have to worry that our bass and bluegill will end up in our neighbor's pond as our overflow has backed up and it drains into his pond.  Get back in your own pond.
The pond is well over 15' out of its banks - we normally ride our 4-wheelers down this path that is now filled with water.
Somehow, with so much rain, grass is growing in our driveway - way out of bounds.  I should celebrate the ladino clover in the middle of it that magically, somehow appeared.  You can't mow this stuff too much either.  After 5 or 6 mowings already, it is still blooming!
Everything is so doggone wet!  Along with 3 launch failures this morning.  They are wet & stinky.  They're not happy about this turn of events.  Neither am I.
3 new failed launches this morning
I swear, even the ticks are parachuting off the door trims and landing on my head.  I don't know where they're all coming from.  I may choose to borrow Nikki's Frontline.
Even Olivia seems out of sorts - all wet and cranky.  As I was filming her playing hide-n-seek, she stopped on the open deck and turned toward me.  As she gazed at my toes, I suddenly realized just how vulnerable my bare feet were.  I decided it was time to start acting like I knew how to River dance and I kept my feet moving until I was safely back inside the enclosed porch.

But at its root, I know why I'm out of sorts today.  After checking on my colony every 10-15 minutes last night, I was alarmed when my GHO flew out from under my deck.  I hadn't seen her come in and when I went to check the videos, I found that she had attacked the Trendsetter in between one of my checks, in a spot where a new fledge had been trying for an hour to get into a cavity.  Check out the video below - she comes in from the left and hangs on to the Trendsetter for an eternity.  In the video, the fledge flies past the camera during the attack, so fortunately, he lives to tell the tale.  Other martins flushed from the other racks too.  Silly birds....stay put!!  Worst of all, my stupid game camera (seen in the video below) is only 12-13 feet away, didn't capture any of it.  I checked it today - 99% battery.  In the heat & humidity, I was tempted to boot it across the field.  Instead, I rebooted it the standard way - hopefully, it won't have anything to capture tonight, but will be able to if needed.

After seeing a video from 12:10 AM on 6/30, it became obvious that Ellie Mae is going to have to visit the unemployment lines.  Absolutely useless.  As have been most of the other methods that people have suggested.  I am out of ideas - it is check.mate.  She will always be here.  Nothing scares her.
Lights - tried it - failed.
Radio - tried it - failed.
Lights + radio - tried it - failed.
Motion detection lights - tried it - failed.
Scarecrow - tried it - failed.
Let's face it; the only protection that works 100% of the time are the owl cages.  I have plenty of alternate food here - rabbits, feral cats, moles, voles, mice, snakes, etc.  Yet, my owl prefers an easy-to-get meal.  Well, she won't get one here as long as they stay behind the cages.  Otherwise I can't guarantee anything. But I won't kill her.  Another one will only take her place.  We will just do the best we can with *preventative* measures and accept that I have a beautiful, very smart owl.  I just need to be smarter.
I will enjoy the positive things.  At least the Compass Plant - after 6 years of waiting - is finally blooming.  This makes me happy today.  Mag.freaking.nificent!!! Beautiful, isn't it?  Definitely worth the wait.
Compass Plant - 6 years old, finally blooming.

So, what do you do when you have such an off-kilter, out-of-sorts day?  Well, you suck it up.  Thaw out some crickets, soak them in some bird-vitamin solution and stuff the wet kids full of food.  Leave them in a bucket until they're dry and put them back out in a dry gourd on the rack from whence they came. 
You stop and enjoy the clasping milkweed that has grown out of bounds - where no seed has been planted (not by you, anyway).
Clasping Milkweed (thanks for ID info to Louise Chambers)
You stop and watch your happy, chattering purple martins chasing down the bug hatches in the field, because despite my owl's best efforts, they are clearly undeterred in their mission to feed their kids, and get them flying.
You herd the fish back into the main body of the pond, by splashing about in your muck boots.  You stop and enjoy the common milkweed that is now spreading out into the yard and tell Mr. Freeze he no longer needs to mow there.

Then you park your butt on the porch with a good book, a glass of wine, a pair of binoculars and your muck boots (just in case you have more launch failures) and watch your colony for the rest of the day.  After all, it is still MY little piece of heaven, and despite all the challenges, I am diggin' it here at Gobbler's Knob.