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

Sunday, April 29, 2018

View From the Porch - The Fish Thief

For the last few days, my colony has been under siege by a female Cooper's hawk and a smaller hawk - not sure if it's a Sharpie or a small male Cooper's hawk. Nevertheless it was a beautiful day complete with boathorns, setting up / relocating decoys, filling bird feeders and nest checks. No eggs yet, thankfully!
Feeling very accomplished, Bob and I relaxed on the back porch to watch the martins and listen for the dreaded "alarm system" indicating the hawk was back. Bob saw it first circling over the pond and said, "is that the @$!? hawk coming back again"? Some martins and tree swallows did seem alarmed by the presence of this guy.
Me: "No, that's too big for a Cooper's hawk".  And within 3 seconds, the large raptor folded its wings back and dove toward the pond.  Pulling up at the last second with feet outstretched, it still splashed into the water and flopped around for 3-4 seconds, before finally becoming airborne again.  We watched in amazement - me squealing in delight, as it displayed its catch to us, departing southward. But the fun wasn't over yet. Suddenly we noticed and identified a large eagle rapidly approaching from the east - straight-lined flying, hellbent and focused on catching the first raptor - later identified as an Osprey.  The eagle looked like an F-18 as he zeroed in on the Osprey.  That guy had just stolen food from the eagle's territory and it was not going to be allowed to get away with it!
Oh and me without a video or picture camera.
As the eagle closed the distance rapidly, the Osprey tried to circle to evade, but finally gave up its precious catch, dropping it in our neighbor's hayfield. The eagle broke off its attack and quickly dove to the ground to claim the large bass.
I managed to sprint indoors to grab my binoculars. When I managed to finally get the Osprey into focus, I found there were actually two of them slowly beginning to ascend again and moving away.
I searched the skies and identified a juvenile eagle coming in from the east as well...apparently still following its parents and learning the skills required for hunting.
This morning, I wasn't even entertaining the thought of the Osprey pair returning, when suddenly I spotted it beginning a slow circle of our pond again. Silly me, STILL with no movie camera. Hey, THIS time I am going to capture it on video.  Unfortunately, my excitement caused me to fat-finger, thumb and push all the wrong buttons at the wrong time and this is all I captured.  At least I have proof this time.

I'm going to have a hard time accomplishing everything I had planned for the day today, while I'm running in & out of the house trying to see if they are back.
Oh, and how many fish do Osprey eat everyday?
Check out the video below - not the best, but I'll keep practicing.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Of Missouri Sunsets, Spring and Purple Martins

After a few days of cold, wet miserable weather - including SNOW, I decided to go outside the last few evenings to check on my purple martin population and observe them as they rain down from the sky at dusk.  On Monday night, my camera battery died pretty quickly.  Just swell. But Tuesday night, I was re-charged and prepared.  Only I really wasn't prepared for what Mother Nature has been up to the last few days.
After last year's drama of having to deal with a lot-more-than-usual hawk attacks (8-10 per day - we think a male & female Cooper's hawk) we removed a few more trees this past winter.  So far, this has been a huge improvement...(knocking on wood).
The guidelines for attracting martins state that you need 40' of open space around your colony, but there are many other factors involved in that, not only for attracting, but also keeping them safe.  Even though they were 150' away, the hawks were using the cedar trees as cover and coming up the East side low & fast behind them, then launching surprise attacks on my new fledges. So, in the end, the trees had to go.
Still, I'm engaging every tool in my arsenal to fight back against any hawk attacks, including my little 'winged orcas' and bird-feeding stations surrounding my colony on all sides, setup halfway between the woods and the gourd racks.
My "Winged Orcas"

In my particular case, the noise from my colony attracts hawks, more than any birds at a bird feeder.
The birds at the East feeding station were on duty, doing their part. They work-for-food...notice I didn't say, "for free", but since chicken scratch is only $7.50 a bag at our local MFA, let's just call them, "cheap labor" and "free decoys".
The birds at the West feeding station were also on duty - same labor prices.  When I'm out & about with my martins, I keep one eye on these feeding stations so I can gauge whether a predator is nearby.
While waiting for the martins to return, I made a video of my little winged orcas (tree swallows) and all the other bird activity around my site. I was surprised at how many birds I could hear on the video when I played it back on my computer. I had only been 'listening' for alarm calls while outside and didn't really realize how many birds have already arrived this spring!
Take a listen - how many birds can you identify by their calls in the below video? I'll give you a hint - there are NO English house sparrows or starlings!

At 7:08 PM a small group of eight martins started circling the gourd racks. By 7:24 PM - still only seeing 8 martins, I thought I may have been off by a factor of 12 when I had informed a fellow purple martin landlord that I thought I had approximately 100 martins here now.
But at 7:31 PM, it started raining martins from the sky and I had to force myself to turn off the video camera periodically as I tried to keep watch for any approaching hawks and enjoy the show at the same time.  And wow, WHAT a show - a brilliant sunset AND over 100 purple martins!  I had such a delightful evening.
The sound in the video below is just as I heard it - no enhancements have been made. I did have to blend multiple videos together, as I had to frequently turn it off and on, so I could walk around and continue to monitor for hawks. To enjoy the video below, click on the YouTube icon and open in full-screen mode.

I love these evenings - partly cloudy paired with the setting sun causing these rapidly changing colors, along with loud, raucous purple martin chatter and no hawks. Good night, my lovelies! Tomorrow is another day!

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, 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.

Monday, January 2, 2017

When Love and Despair Collide

...or maybe a better title is, "when two passions collide".  I dunno. The 2016 purple martin season was my most challenging season I've ever experienced.  It was a year where my old self and my 'new & evolved' self encountered each other and had many, many heated conversations.  Being passionate about wildlife means you have to accept many pleasant and unpleasant things dealing with life and death.
Our 23 acres, nicknamed "Gobbler's Knob" is a true wildlife sanctuary.  A sanctuary where all native wildlife, whether predator or prey, is welcome. I am blessed to have the opportunity to work from home and be able to observe the predators that frequent my back yard and even more fortunate when one hangs around long enough for me to get its photograph.
We have coyotes.

We have foxes.

We have quail (as well as many other native birds) nesting here.

We have Red Shouldered hawks.
We have an extremely fast, aggressive Sharp-shinned hawk that visits my site early every spring to help herself to the tired, migrating martins and manages to bring out the very best selection of my Navy vocabulary.

We even have our beloved national symbol visit my backyard, only 50 feet from my office window - the American Bald Eagle.

But one predator in particular - my resident Great Horned Owl - has worn out her welcome and this past purple martin season she pushed....nay - she strained the limits of my love for her.  The problems I had with her this past year drove me into deep introspection and forced me to explore my commitment to being a good steward to all things wild, possibly even shutting down my colony.
I totally understand that each and every animal is subject the predator-prey relationship.  That is the one law to which all members of nature are bound, not because they signed on to it, but just by the very virtue of their existence, they must abide by it, including me.  My reasons for not killing this owl have always extended far beyond the fact that it is illegal to do so. No, I have not killed her because of my own principles - I strongly believe we need predators to maintain the balance that Mother Nature requires.
Since 2014, this GHO has been attacking my purple martin colony.  Actually, after reviewing my records and with the benefit of hindsight to see patterns, I think it has been longer than that - maybe as early as 2012, but this past year (2016), she decided that she liked this buffet setup and upped her game.
With my monitoring setup, I knew when she first arrived at the beginning of the 2016 season.  But I was prepared - I had everything caged in and I was determined she would get even less meals here this year than she did in 2015.
"*PREVENTION is KEY* - install owl guards BEFORE you have a problem.  Radios (and cds with recorded 'home' noises, including a shot gun), flood lights, red lights on top of racks, scare crows, reflector tape, even setting off firecrackers  - all of those things may temporarily work for a week, even two or three weeks, but he/she will be back."
As she escalated her attacks every week and became more aggressive, I also escalated.  At every turn she made, I was there with a counter-measure.  Everything we tried only worked for one to three weeks, depending on the counter-measure we put in place.  I was often getting up at 3:00 A.M. to scare her off when she came for her early-morning raids; but still my principles held - I refused to kill her.  But I also have a full-time job and couldn't be out there every night to stop her and she took full advantage of my absences.
During the first week of July, she decided it was time to increase her success rate and learn how to get past the barriers that had worked very well the least few years. After returning from a business trip in mid-July, I was stunned to watch a video of her 'walking' around the exterior of the cage attached to the Trendsetter, probing the 4"x4" openings I had made in the wire, meant to make it easier for the martins to enter and exit the wire caging.
It was then that she managed to truly bring me to the edge of a cliff that I didn't want to be on as I watched the next 2 videos.  My heart broke, my chest constricted and my throat went dry.  Despite everything we had in place, she was flushing them out of the housing and grabbing them as they exited their nest boxes. Those that flushed were doomed.
In one of the videos, she dragged one of the martins through the cage hole and landed near the game camera, where I could hear his screeching until he died.  Sobbing doesn't even begin to adequately describe what I was doing when the video ended.
**WARNING - both videos below are difficult to watch, much less listen to....

As I watched from the depths of my despair, my anger flashed beyond boiling.  I thought, "I am done- I have failed them....I no longer know what to do." Even though it was daylight, I was ready to hunt her down and kill her.  My brain was on fire, while my heart simultaneously ached.  It was obvious the caging on the house was too close to the porches, but with the wind load here in Missouri and the fact it had worked for the last 2 years, I hadn't been concerned about it. I stormed through the house, swearing that was the last martin she was going to eat.  She had gone too far.
I went outside to vent my sorrow to the wind and the trees. As I stood in the yard near my gourd racks,  the activity in my colony that day belied the horrors of the night before, making me feel even more devastated.  These resilient birds who had to have heard the dying cries of their brothers, were busily flying to and fro in the hot, bright sunshine, feeding the remaining nestlings.  It was almost surreal. 
My most immediate concern was for the welfare of the remaining nestlings in the house, so, hoping that she wouldn't want to get her wings tangled up with some light-weight twine, I used some mostly-empty bottles to weigh down some twine around the remaining nests.  It worked to save the remaining adults and nestlings.
As the heat intensified that day, I watched the videos above again & again, torturing myself I suppose for losing this battle with the owl.  I deserved the torture. It took a long time to sort my feelings out - months even, but eventually, I realized I was actually more angry at myself than at her. She was doing what any owl or other predator for that matter, would do if they found an easy meal and her mind was only focused on two things - her own survival and that of her owlets which she was likely feeding at the time.
After all the anger, sorrow, despair, crying a river of tears, I received a few emails from a few friends that made me decide I need to pick up my pieces and move forward.  So how do I go forward now?  I have decided that I need to remove the Trendsetter and replace it with another gourd rack, specifically, a Super System gourd rack with a 3" pole, which will allow me to mount a larger cage that will extend further from the openings of the nests and withstand the Missouri winds better.  My Trendsetter has a lot of sentimental value for me, but even extending the cage on it at this point still allows her to flush the martins out at night and this house is obviously now her favorite target.
I have learned so much about owls in the last 2 years and if a new martin landlord asked me about owls today I would tell them, "*PREVENTION is KEY* - install owl guards BEFORE you have a problem."  Once an owl discovers that there is 'food' in those gourds / nestboxes, there will be no stopping him/her - he/ she will be relentless.  Radios (and cds with recorded 'home' noises, including a shot gun), flood lights, red lights on top of racks, scare crows, reflector tape, even setting off firecrackers  - all of those things may temporarily work for a week, even two or three weeks, but he/she will be back and nothing will stop the attacks.  The most absolute best guard against an owl is to setup owl guards as preventative / proactive measures, instead of having to always *react* and be on defense.
The first step to healing is to forgive yourself.  As Dana Ripper from MRBO emailed me, "hopefully you still produced a gazillion babies though"!  It made me smile.  It was the first positive thought I'd had on this topic in a long time.  My friend Greta Webb emailed me and said, "We can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes."  Thank you Dana and Greta...you set me back on my path.
My New Year's resolution was to forgive myself for my mistakes.  With that, I'm moving forward to the 2017 Purple Martin Season, with a look back at the 2016 - which doesn't look like it was so bleak after all. 
Enjoy the video.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Purple Martins at Oleo Acres - The Cheaper Spread

Wayne Smith, the owner of Oleo Acres subtitles his farm as, "The Cheaper Spread" because, that's what they used to call the oleo margarine during World War II, when there was a shortage of butter in the U.S.  I met Wayne in my first Missouri Department of Conservation presentation last year.  He's a flirtatious widower and a delightful, curious gentleman who has been hosting a few pairs of martins every year in his old, Trio Grandpa house in Summersville, MO.  He visited my site a couple of times in the fall of 2014 to check out my gourd racks and get pointers on how to trap and eliminate starlings and house sparrows.  He really liked my Super System 24 and the Troyer Vertical gourds and finally decided to order one of his own.
He ordered and setup his new system this past February.
Yesterday, I went to see Wayne, check out his colony and do a nest check with him.  He was giddy as he met me half way down his driveway in his electric golf cart.  I had stopped to greet the dancing, prancing, little bucking goats as they raced my car along the fence line next to the road.  Baaaaa! Baaaaa!  I had to take their pictures and chat with them.
Snowy & Pete were bringing up the rear.

We made our way around his new gourd rack and I was thrilled as I opened each gourd and found either nestlings or eggs.  The totals were surprising to me.  He has 23 pair in his gourd rack and 6 pair in his old Trio house.  In all the years I've been mentoring, I haven't seen a 1st-year gourd rack fill up like that.  I did notice that the gourd racks that were normally on Highway 17, 1 mile north of  Summersville were no longer there.  Wayne informed me the racks had been moved 4 miles away to the owner's children's new home.  Maybe some of the displaced martins had ended up here.  Nevertheless, Wayne said, "I'll take'em".  And he is taking very good care of them.  He was thrilled in our workshop last year to find out he can do weekly nest checks and doesn't miss a chance to lower his rig and check on his charges.  He has 44 nestlings and 60 eggs. 
Wayne is old school - no calculators here!  Just good old pencil to paper and figurin'.

A proud landlord - thrilled with his success and proud of his accomplishments.  Congratulations, Wayne!

Wayne's new gourd rack - 23 pair his first year.
I asked Wayne if he was going to put up another gourd rack next year and he laughed.  "You think I can get more?", he asked.  Yes, Wayne, I'm pretty sure of that.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

DawnSong, Full Moon and Night Owls

"Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one.  But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now."  ~Eckhart Tolle
Last Saturday night as I sat on the porch around 9:00 PM, I made the decision that Sunday, I would get up at 4 AM - prime start time for the dawn song.  As I listened to the little padding, skittering feet in my gutters just over my head for the next 30 minutes though, I almost changed my mind.  Back & forth the mice were scampering about...at least, I think they were mice.  When I thought I heard one on the rail alongside me, I decided to pack it in.  Mr. Freeze was in bed already snoring and with Nikki inside also, who would rescue me if the mice executed a coup and had me trussed up in the yard like Gulliver by morning? 
Change of plans - I would still get up but I was going to change my location to the basement patio away from the gutters.  Plenty of room to move far away from my gutter-cleaning mice.
Let me start this post by saying, I am not a morning person.  It's just not in my nature.  I'm a night owl.  I do some of my best thinking late in the evenings, especially after the majority of the population on my continent has gone to sleep.  But last year, after experiencing my first owl attacks, out of necessity, I stayed up all night and had the most awesome early morning experiences I've ever had and I want to do it more often.
I grudgingly set the coffee pot to go off at 3:40 AM and my alarm clock for 4 AM. 
This year, along with my scarecrow, I'm trying a new approach with the owl.  Instead of leaving the porch lights on constantly and directed at  my colony all night, I've deployed a new, motion-detection, solar-powered 850 lumens LED light.  The idea is that it will react to him by turning on when he comes into the colony, hopefully making him think someone is physically in the colony and they turned it on.  My game camera took a video of the Trendsetter rocking to and fro the night of April 18th.  The light switched on and apparently he took off.  We haven't had any attacks in the last 3 weeks, so I'm cautiously optimistic at this point that the light is helping.
Artificial full moon in my back yard.  The light is far brighter than it appears in this picture.  Almost blinding when you're in full darkness like this, but I had no idea how to set my camera to get a true representation of how bright it was and was annoyed just enough to not care at the time.

The information on the light says it has a 70' range with 180 degrees of detection.  At 4 AM Sunday morning, it was on when I first got up and glanced outside.  You can select the number of minutes it will stay on and I had it set at 1 minute.  After getting your eyes adjusted to the darkness, that one minute of bright light seems like an eternity.  
Apparently, it's also very sensitive.  The blasted thing came on every few minutes, reacting to every single martin leaving their housing to dawnsing.  At first, I thought it was funny, but after about the 10th or 11th time, I was annoyed with it and thought what a dumb bunny I had been to face it towards my own house.  This weekend, I'll be moving it to the other side of the colony, where it can't blind me in the darkness.  It didn't appear to phase the martins as I could hear them starting their song after they exited, then a few minutes later, high in the sky, singing away.
Full moon peeking through the clouds - 5/3/2015
By 4:15 AM, I was outside with a full cup of coffee, my camera and a bucket of coffee for refills.  Just me and my martins, the frogs, the tree swallow - the little stinker - who insisted on doing a close flyby, and many other animals that I just prefer not to think about when I'm standing alone in the darkness.  The full moon, peeking through the persistent black clouds made me think of every scary movie I've ever watched.  Enough of that.  You can't think of those things while standing in the dark by yourself or you won't enjoy the magic that's about to happen. By 4:20 AM, I had tuned my ears to block out the other noises and listen for the martins that I knew were above me in the sky, but which I still could not see.  And then I heard the first one. There's the Magic!

Much to my surprise there were many, many more in the sky already, their song echoing through the trees north of my house.  Their song carries extremely well at this time of morning, due to the drops of moisture in the air.  From the PMCA site:
"Dawnsong is a unique set of vocalizations performed by adult male martins during the predawn hours of spring while flying high above their colony sites, or while perched nearby. It is a loud, continuous series of chirps presented in a syncopated series of about seven to nine notes repeated over and over. Each male flies his own path in slow, wide circles about 500 feet up, singing his own unique song. It is estimated that the sounds from a morning of dawnsong transmit to about 100 cubic miles of air volume."
(Hill, James R., Purple Martin Dawnsong, For Attracting Martins!, pg. 3.)"

Full moon setting - 5/3/2015
After reading multiple posters posting on the internet about why they thought the purple martins dawn sing, I asked Louise Chambers (PMCA), if anyone really knew why they do it.  Louise responded,
"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"

Sunrise - 5/3/2015

By 5:40 AM, they were starting to trickle back into the colony and this one decided to do an encore performance on right there on the racks.  I'm sure the residents still inside their gourds trying to sleep really appreciated his chortling at their front doors.  I personally really appreciated his performance, as I could make out his mouth, throat and general animation during the calls to be interesting too.
My martins have been dawn singing now for a week.  It's great to listen to a cd or listen to these recordings, but if you've never gotten up in the morning to listen to them, I encourage you to try it at least once.  If you love purple martins as much as I do, I guarantee you, it will touch your soul.  They are so free, unafraid and untethered and I feel honored to share in these special hours of pure joy.
A lot of people zip through their lives desperately trying to find something special, something fascinating and thrilling to help brighten their days, something to excite them, never knowing that it is and always has been right there in front of them the whole time - they need only to stop, look and truly breathe it in and enjoy.  Who needs to spend barrels of money on vacations and stressful travel, when you can grab a cup of coffee and walk out in your backyard to experience such thrills?
Sunrise - 5/3/2015 - Can you spot the Purple Martin?

"The soul is your inner-most being.  The presence that you are beyond form.  The consciousness that you are beyond form, that is the soul.  That is who you are in essence."  ~Eckhart Tolle