Monday, June 18, 2012

Feuding Females

Over two months ago I started early daylight watches from my kitchen porcelain top table out to my nearby shoreline area to wait for the sure-to-be Woodduck and Hooded merganser interactions around and in the nesting boxes I put up.

Back in mid-March when we had about a week of temperatures around 80 degrees and cover ice melting around our lake, a female Hooded merganser eyed the cavity entrance of a cedar nesting box I had posted up near our shed off the water. I watched her come up to the edge of the lake ice over 50 yards away and look directly at the box repeatedly. I knew she was looking right at the nesting box and would attempt to fly to it soon. Not that I knew much about Hooded merganser behavior at such times, but it was rather obvious to me what was going on between her visual acuity and her intent to find a nest cavity already at this early stages of breeding.

In my leather covered journal of bird watching that I try to keep on almost a daily basis here at Hidden Lake, I started making entries about this nesting behavior and what would come to be a most rewarding written recording of the almost daily feuding and challenges facing nest box competition between female Wood ducks and female Hooded mergansers. It would take many pages of writing to cover here what I saw and learned about such behavior.

There are some key behavioral interactions between the two species I had never witnessed nor read anything about until I decided to watch them this year from the indoor comfort of my kitchen table chair.

By the end of March, the female Hooded merganser had chosen her nesting box, and yes she did actually come right over to our shoreline once the ice had melted in that far, and I watched her make an attempt to fly from the shoreline right to the box near our shed, a distance of about 25 feet. She had selected THAT box and nothing was going to deter her from using it to nest in. Once I saw this flight from water to box, I immediately moved the box into the water to the north side of our deck  By the end of March she had 3 eggs in the dark mulch shavings I had put the box covering the bottom and up a couple of inches in depth.

Soon I moved the same box from dock area to a place along our shoreline closer to our large willow tree, supporting the box post in the water with some underwater blocks. I now could watch the box directly with my journal ready. In past years I would have been more interested in recording the action with a camera, but felt no compulsion now to do so.  But I did miss doing so, and now wish I would have tried to capture some of what I witnessed. It would have made for some award-winning photos I think.

A number of times the female Hooded merganser had to challenge the presence of two pairs of Woodducks around the box. At times she did so by going right up to either male or female, and rising up beak to beak, attempt to drive them away from her chosen box.  Sometimes she succeeded, driving away briefly both male and female that came into another nesting box I had mounted on our deck facing to try and ease this competition for nesting places, but it didn't work, I  put up a third box and it was hardly used by the female Hooded, she wanted the one box she had chosen earlier, and that was it.

One early morning, while this female Hooded was in her chosen nest box along the shoreline with three eggs, a female woodduck flew up to the box cavity, and perched there for some seconds, then went right into the box and in about fifteen seconds kicked the female merganser right out.  In the process, an egg was broken, and the female woodduck removed it, took it out into the middle of the lake and gently dropped it into the water. I was watching all this through my Celestron binoculars. Over two months, this female Hooded always came back every morning to this one box and attempted to get in, only to be thwarted from doing so because the female woodduck had already taken up the box at an earlier time, usually by 5:30am, but sometimes when the woodduck slipped out after laying an egg, the female merganser slipped in for up to 10 minutes before leaving again, so the box was getting filled up over a period of weeks with both woodduck and merganser eggs. At one point when the female merganser no longer seemed interested in the box, I went out to it when I knew it was empty of any female, and counted 19 eggs!  Female woodducks lay up to 12 usually. This is just a short description of all the interactions I witnessed because I decided it was important to witness for future placements of nesting boxes not only here at the lake but along lakes in other areas nearby where they are needed.

In the last days of March 2011, I witnessed a  woodduck pair fly up into our large willow, perch on a large limb, and look around the tree for a suitable cavity for nesting,  Immediately after that, I went to a bird product store  in Brighton,MI, and bought the cedar woodduck box I am using this year. Last year it wasn't used until June when both a female woodduck and a female Hooded came into it but never laid any eggs. The female woodduck would stay in the box all day, sometimes leaving for a short period but always returning and staying inside it overnight with no males around anywhere.

Interesting behavior!  I have thoroughly enjoyed watching and learning about the interactions between these two waterfowl species.  The pages of my leather journal contain a lot more of it, and the pages describing it all just ended June 16 with the successful hatching of around 10 eggs by the female woodduck in the shoreline box. The first dock nesting box contained 18 eggs, but female woodduck abandoned it a week before hatching, and no female returned to it, though I often spotted the female Hooded looking intently at it. You see, there were two female woodducks and two female Hooded interested in both boxes at one time, but only one succeeded in incubating any eggs until they hatched and left the box into Hidden Lake.

Thanks for following a part of the ongoing story sure to continue next year.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bird Battles

I am going to continue writing for my own benefit of impressions and expressions about birds. There is more creativity in a single flying bird than any and all human invention. We should not be dishonest and doubt this. One of our huge dishonesty's: to think and say that any time we somehow get off the ground literally, then we are "flying". We use the word all the time to denote what we really cannot do physically at all without the help of one of our many "flying" inventions, of which we put ourselves in or use to give us the semblance of really being able to fly. But deep down, we envy this ability in birds and we show it daily in our words. To doubt this is to be an unrepentant hypocrite. We simply want the ability but do not care to entertain the thought of not having it.  And so we continue the battle within.

Birds here at my lakeside home are in battle too, with each other.  And my choice is to decide which one of two species must win. I must be honest. I find it impossible to tolerate an imbalance of nature humans have made worse by ignoring the problem of bird battles between native species and invasive non-natives. What am I referring to?

For now, high up our massive and tall Weeping willow tree at lake's edge, there are European starlings wanting to take over the previously made nest cavities of other native species, like woodpeckers. The starlings are relentless harassers of any other species they want to get out of these nesting sites. Here at Hidden Lake, it is the battle of starlings versus a Red-bellied woodpecker pair that are creating their nest site on the underside of one decaying willow branch facing down over our deck.  The female red-bellied has been continuing to excavate her nest and throw out the chips down onto the deck I might add.  She will be laying eggs soon. The male is in close attendance and guards the nest entrance and general area around it. Any squirrel coming up the tree gets attacked by both. But the starlings come in numbers to harass and to drive out the more beautiful residents.

For all of you who do not know this already, the European starling is now one of the most numerous birds in North America. Why? For one, they can adapt their nest site requirements to any size and shape cavity they can fit into from the inner city to the most rural countryside. They nest early in spring and continue nesting repeatedly throughout summer.

I have seen them nesting in abandoned vehicle engine compartments, in city and town light poles of every description, in the legs of playground equipment; the list goes on and on.  This presents a terrible problem to try and control. Can you imagine city and school and park maintenance workers going around all day long attempting to get rid of them? It's not going to happen any time soon.

But it should,  if we really care about protecting the populations of our native birds. This is one bird battle our natives are not going to win at all, sheer numbers of their enemies are going to overpower their abilities to battle back. Just remember this next time you have your fancy car at a traffic light and see black and yellow-billed starlings singing on top of a neighboring light pole or other invention of ours. We created the problem for our own birds and too precious little is being done about it from bird-loving people and the few bird organizations spending their time and dollars on less important issues. Foreign intruders are winning the day and almost all the battles. We should be up in arms about it and taking this battle of birds to the enemy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winter Gatherings

Here at Hidden Lake a brisk snowfall gently dropped a small accumulation across a white-to-black melting landscape showing a backdrop of black tree trunks and a winding ribbon of dark gray water, curving between lighter gray ice packs and shore-lined edges of disappearing white.
As the accumulation became difficult to ignore on our deck, all the reds and grays and browns of various birds were a frenzy of feathers all wanting the choice pieces of black sunflower seeds scattered by hand and foot across the wood. 
The green small suet feeder hanging from an outside corner of our dining room cedar siding was a choice hub of pounding as well. Whichever bird has the longest bill also stays on the suet as four other species of woodpeckers await their turn after the Northern Flicker has its fill first and then flies away.
Next in line is that wonderful winter rarity: the Red-headed woodpecker. Only one of the two redheads who came regularly every day together comes alone now and often just minutes before complete darkness here after 6pm. Where does the singular beauty of this individual go all these long cold nights?
Out in the open water a lone male Mute swan spends his almost his entire day making sure all the honking Canada geese make their stay here a temporary one, chasing one and then another in low aerial circuits past our shore and around the lake in wide oval circles. What endurance to keep this going the entire day and even into the nighttime hours. After doing so, he often lands with a long skid across the ice and into the open water. I rather think he enjoys it all!
Today a large white-capped and brown bird stood alone on an ice edge, plunging with talons stretched into the dark surface water, attempting to grab an obvious morsel. The Bald eagle is not a common visitor here but I believe it comes more often than I suppose.  After sitting at the ice's edge for a short while, up come those 6 foot wings and with some effortless beats the majestic bird wings up and down the lake's edge into a large overhanging oak tree.
Also along the ever changing edge between ice and water comes a new threesome of finely detailed white, brown,black, and tan colored duck, all with feathered hoods raised as if in a show of prideful beauty. These are Hooded mergansers. Two males vying for the attention of one other not so generously colored. They circle her to show off and she tries to get around them. I first spotted their winter gathering yesterday.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Don't Forget to Feed the Birds!

Another gray February day, Groundhog Day?  Who cares?  Everyone feeds on consumer superficiality, yeah. Just a pretense for more insecurity about where life is taking you, and it is taking you directly forward, like riding a bicycle, moving those petals around and around to take you somewhere though you may like going in circles too, less adventurous but more comforting.

I'm here at my kitchen table in early morning hours waiting for another glimpse of  a rare winter visitor to my feeders, a Red-headed woodpecker no less. I haven't seen a single one since moving to my hidden lake retreat two months and a year ago. But one suddenly showed up about a week ago and has been a regular here almost single day since I first laid eyes on its dramatic few colors. What a beautiful bird!

At 9:53 I was shocked out of my decaffeinated coffee drinking by the sudden sighting of not one, but TWO, yes TWO Red-heads on MY deck!  I was overcome with staring at them. One flew off the suet feeder and the other woodpecker followed in chase. One left for good, while the other began exploring the upper limbs of our giant lakeside willow tree. Then it would come back and forth to a large shallow bowl of sunflower seeds I placed on top of one of our deck posts. The red, black, and white beauty comes into the bowl over and over again.

12:12pm-guess what?  Both RED heads are back!  Amazing, and they're not chasing each other in this freezing weather. One of the woodpeckers has some grayish head feathers instead of red around the eyes, and the other is totally red-headed. A mated pair from this year, one adult and one youngster? One male, one female, or two of each? Who knows by their behavior? But its all good, I'm here, they're here and everything seems at peace now. So don't forget to feed the birds!

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Boy Among Birds

A little background on birds and me:  Grew up in a very southwest Ann Arbor, Michigan, rural house surrounded by very old apple trees. The open fields and woodlands nearby were parts and parcels of old farms, one of which was platted as "Keck's Corners", bordering the east and west sides of Wagner road. Still dirt covered when I started my wandering days as a curious young boy of 5 years old, itching to get close to every wild bird around my house. There were plenty of birds to choose from too. These encounters of joy with birds helped me escape the harsher disciplines exacted on my skin by a harsh father, who was a very stern exacter of things to be done exactly his way or else there would be stares and quick punishment. There would be a whole lot of shaking me up. All a bit much for a sensitive young lad.
If there was one strong physical presence around my boyhood home that I looked up to, it was a giant monarch apple tree direct in front of our front porch. This unmovable botanical wonder became my most desirable place of refuge spring, summer, and fall.  In winter I viewed the tree's hulking frame primarily from our large living room picture window where wild bird activities were abundant and worth watching. A front row seat to view the bird behavior of everything from hawks to hummingbirds. On one remarkable winter day after a severe winter storm I was able to be eye-to-eye with a Sharp-shinned hawk when it flew remarkably swift on top of the snow-covered border shrub directly below my face-to-the-glass view. I will never forget that fierce and untamed stare in those bright red eyes. We were only a few inches apart.

That rare encounter would mark similar longings for more in the years to come.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

One of Those Storms

It was one of those muggy hearing-a-pin-drop kind of July afternoons that come regularly into southern Michigan just about every summer. But all too quickly it changed. I was witness to the rumbling and darkening pea-green elements of the southwestern sky, conjuring up a boiling mess of wind and rain  and hurling it across the lake we call home to in a wave-mounding and water-lifting effort the likes of which one rarely expects. I suddenly caught sight of two very slim dark-headed figures slicing their way with heads up into that mess.

They were swallows in the storm.

Not fifty yards away two adult tree swallows were finding some sort of excitement winging it into the full fury of tornado winds?  Had to rub my eyes a few times. How could they? Even looking like they were enjoying the whole thing! I was almost ecstatic to have a dry front row seat in time to enjoy viewing this grand theatrical performance. They made it look so easy. I really wanted to try joining them, sharing the excitement of swirling  through a real butt-whipping storm.

A very,very impressive performance not to be forgotten.

Here I Go With Birds Again

Among all the wild and domestic groups of animals within our visual boundaries of land, water, and sky, we usually delight in shake-head watching first the flight abilities among the most elevated animal group of all: BIRDS OF THE AIR. Birds that fly around, by, and above us. Words of any kind quite simply fail to fully articulate the flight capabilities of birds and all the wonder and all the envy that ability evokes and inspires us to express in our limited ways. Next to having the gift of life with all its promises and failures, watching all the motions of birds in the air is a gift of freedom every true human should fully relish and carefully cherish within and without by sharing such precious moments through writing, speaking, some way preserving this monumental treasure to be found all over our shared earth place.

Every day in endless ways countless references are made about birds for better or for worse; and as each day dawns millions upon millions of creatures of the avian kind take flight as we rise also and take notice wherever we may be. Our ongoing relationships with birds of all kinds should never be understated.  So here I go again proclaiming what we homosapiens usually fail to acknowledge as being so important to our lives and to the overall wonder of just being alive enough to enjoy the best of birds.  Come share all that wonder with me right here, right now before we forget just how awesome it all is.

Why is it that we need birds so much? Truth is, we can't really escape their impact, literal or any other way. They are just too important too ignore even if we continue living in boxed-up worlds and denying the freedom we so envy in birds. Upcoming posts will explore some of the diverse ways that question is answered, for better or for worse. There is a fundamental joy in being in the presence of most birds one cannot deny.