Category Archives: Volunteer

Boxes Full of Blue Baby Birds at Bear Creek Park. What Could Be Better?

All over Oakland Township – along the Paint Creek Trail and in Draper Twin Lake, Charles Ilsley and Bear Creek Parks – citizen scientist volunteers are busily monitoring nest boxes  twice a week for Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Nestwatch program .  I posted last year about the training we receive through our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s annual workshop and Cornell’s online resources.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

 

As a volunteer monitor for the boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park this year, I’ve kept my eye on two species of bright blue native birds :  Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) .   It’s been such a joy, and it’s also taught me that citizen science can sometimes challenge the heart.

 

Eastern Bluebirds From Egg to Flight

The Bluebirds have had a good year in the brand new boxes at Bear Creek.  Fourteen baby birds from three different boxes have taken the big plunge and ultimately  flown out into the summer sunshine.  It always strikes me that the moment that little birds fly is really a second birth for them after emerging out of their eggs.   What a moment that first flight must be – much like exiting from the womb for human babies – moving from a cozy darkness to a big, bright, demanding world outside.

It all begins, of course, with a nest and an egg.  The male Bluebird attracts a mate to a tree cavity or nest box by dropping in a little nesting material and either popping in and out of the hole or sitting on the box fluttering his bright blue wings.  But once a pair has mated, the female builds the nest – a cup of nicely woven grasses and occasionally some pine needles. She lays one small egg each day, usually in the morning.  Bluebird females don’t stay on the nest all day.  They come and go to feed.  Incubation takes 11 to 19 days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Bluebird babies hatch out naked, blind and completely helpless.  The ornithology term is “altricial” as opposed to “precocial,”  which refers to baby birds  like the Killdeer that emerge from the egg ready to run and feed.  At first, black feathers appear under the nestlings’ skin looking like blue-black splotches.  Gradually feathers emerge here and there on their tiny bodies. I’ll bet the beaks of nestlings are lined in white because they help the parent stick the caterpillars in the right place inside that dark cavity.

Hatchling bluebirds about 2-3 days old.

From hatchling to fledgling takes another 17-19 days for bluebirds. The feathers develop first in spiky looking “sheaths.”  I think that’s what we’re seeing in this photo about a week after the nestlings hatched.

Bluebirds about about a week after hatching.

Gradually the sheaths drop away, leaving a white dust.  The feathers begin to unfurl.  As you can see below, nests get pretty crowded as the nestlings grow.  Perhaps feeling a bit cramped is nature’s way of encouraging these little birds to take flight. Also, according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.3), the parents feed them less often just before fledging,  so that they are more motivated to get out where the food is.  Tough love in the bird world evidently!

Bluebirds about 12 days after hatching.

This summer, I haven’t been lucky enough to arrive at the Bear Creek nest boxes when fledglings are emerging from a nest box.  But last year, I was fortunate to be home, camera at the ready, when the first bluebird took off from a nest box in our field.   First it hesitated with its tiny feet at the hole and looked around.

A fledgling bluebird surveys the possibility of exiting its nest box for the first time.

After a bit of nervous looking around,  it gathered its courage and dropped from the hole, wings up ready for the downward stroke, body and legs hanging below!

The take off!

And then those blue wings, still partially in spotted brown, spread out for the first time.  So exciting!

Wings open for the first time.

Normally, the fledgling will fly onto a low branch of a nearby tree or shrub and then flutter their way to higher branches. According to Stokes, the parents will bring the fledgling food for the next three to four weeks.  But if the adults mate again during that time, the job of feeding the young falls to the male while the female starts another clutch of eggs.

The fledgling watched over by its dad after its first flight.

A variety of predators, of course, can interrupt this miraculous cycle.  In the park this year, three bluebird eggs in one nest box simply disappeared a few days after they were laid. I could only guess at the culprit.  House Wrens  are known to dispose of other birds’ eggs by removal or pecking and they would fit in a nest box hole.  It seems doubtful that  a snake or raccoon managed to get past the predator guard.  Whoever was the nest thief,  the bluebird adults were resilient.  About a week later,  three more eggs appeared in the nest box. This time, they hatched and are now almost fully feathered.  I expect them to take wing some time next week.

Tree Swallows Literally Feather Their Own Nest!

The beautiful blue and white Tree Swallows had a tougher time than the Bluebirds this year but nine little Tree Swallows added their blue to the sky anyway.  They arrived in late April and began mating displays.

A male Tree Swallow (right)  “chats” with his prospective mate.

I  was pleased to find the beginnings of nest building in the boxes.  But shortly thereafter, we had a severe cold snap and the Tree Swallows disappeared for a week or so at least.  My fellow monitors and I guessed that the insects that they feed on in flight were wiped out by the cold so the Tree Swallows temporarily flew farther south. According to The Stokes Guidethis behavior isn’t uncommon for Tree Swallows in inclement weather.

By mid-May, the swallows returned and began adding material to their nests.  Tree Swallows use grasses as a base for their nests, but they  line the nest with feathers, white ones being a particular favorite.  Eventually I began to see little white eggs not much bigger than a large  jelly bean in three of the boxes. I was so glad to have the swallows nesting again that I decided to forego taking a photo.   So here’s a photo of a single Tree Swallow egg shared by a generous iNaturalist.org photographer who uses the name caw33iii.

A first Tree Swallow egg in its feathery nest. Photo by caw33iii (CC BY-NC)

Eventually, one of my three Tree Swallow boxes had six eggs.  Tree Swallows incubate their eggs for 11-19 days also.  When I arrived on the 21st day, I was greeted by this lovely sight – one or two day old hatchings! I couldn’t resist a quick cellphone photo.  You can see the blue pigment of feathers beneath the skin and of course, white beaks again and completely blind eyes.  Such a pretty variety of feathers in this soft, cozy nest!

Baby Tree Swallows a few days after hatching.

These babies did just fine, because they seemed to have very experienced parents.   Unlike Bluebird parents who will  usually flush from the nest as I approach or simply scold from a nearby tree while I monitor, Tree Swallow parents take, let’s say, a more active role!   Once when I approached to monitor, a female Tree Swallow  just stuck her head out the hole and refused to leave.  I went my merry way without data.

A female Tree Swallow refuses to flush from her box. So I depart without data.

Every time I arrived to peek in this nest box, an adult  swooped over me repeatedly, issuing liquid warning calls.  I’m glad that these parents so fiercely protect their young, so it made me laugh each time. I trust these skillful fliers; they’re just sending a warning to an interloper they have no reason to trust.   I always finish my peek in any nest box in less than a minute anyway, as the Nestwatch training advises.  The last thing I wanted to do was discourage this conscientious couple!

I believe I arrived late on this clutch’s fledge day,  because I heard lots of twittering deep in the nearby bushes. Generally all the fledglings leave on the same day, though occasionally one of them needs an extra day. And indeed, when I took a quick, careful peek into the box, only one little fledgling was left there, probably still screwing its courage to the sticking point.    Again, the parents sailed over my head, encouraging me to leave.  I took their advice.  When I visited again three days later, I was pleased to see that the last little fledgling had taken off into the blue as well.

Tree Swallow fledglings are much more precocious than fledgling bluebirds.  They can fly and scoop insects out of the air on their own in just 2 or 3 days!  Since I have no Bear Creek fledging photos, here’s one I took two years ago of a fledgling Tree Swallow at Draper Twin Lake Park.  It had flown high up onto a guy wire but was having a little trouble sticking the landing!

A Tree Swallow fledgling finding its balance on a wire at Draper in 2017.

Another Tree Swallow nest box at Bear Creek did not fare so well this year.  Three eggs never hatched and the other three  fledglings simply died shortly before their fledge date.  I gently removed them from the nest, limp in my palm, and carried them a distance away in the deep grass under a shrub,  so predators would not be attracted to the other boxes.  A sad afternoon.  Perhaps I missed signs of violence but I looked and didn’t see any.  Perhaps the parents were less adept at finding food after the cold spring delayed the hatching of insects.   But I’m just guessing.  It may have just been a challenging year for these Tree Swallows.

Despite a few casualties, the Bear Creek nest boxes have already fledged nine Tree Swallows  and fourteen Eastern Bluebirds. And we still have 3 Bluebird eggs and 4 Bluebird hatchlings in two boxes.  And that’s just the six boxes in one park!  Imagining these small blue  birds out in the greenery all over the township, growing, practicing their foraging and flying skills and preparing to make the fall migration makes me very happy.

Both of these species have suffered steep declines over the years.  Bluebirds are recovering largely because humans began to provide nest boxes for them back in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Tree Swallow numbers have declined by 49% in the last 40 years, but perhaps the nest boxes and  the information gathered from them will eventually boost their numbers as well.  We have to hope so,  because summer would not be as glorious without these little scraps of blue sky winging their way above our flowered fields.

 

 

 

Photos of the Week: The Pleasures of Harvesting Native Wildflower Seed

Staff member, Alyssa Radzwion and volunteer, Dawn Sun gathering seed at Charles Ilsley Park in late October.

Standing hip-deep in native grasses and wildflowers is a pretty terrific way to spend a few hours on a cool autumn afternoon.  Every fall our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, plans a few days for harvesting the seeds of native wildflowers to plant in our parks over the winter and the following spring.

So this October, volunteers gathered, clippers in hand, paper bags at the ready, to chat quietly as we snipped the seed heads from native prairie flowers. Can you see two of our seed-gathering volunteers in this Where’s Waldo-style photo?

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

It always makes me feel like a child again to stand in a field with friends and have native grasses towering over us.  Here’s our township Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, smiling through a scrim of native grass.

Our stewardship specialist, Alyssa, gathering gray-headed coneflower seeds among the native grasses and wildflowers at Charles Ilsley Park.

On the day pictured above, we harvested seeds from Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Gray-headed Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), and several other native plants.

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Harvesting native seeds is good stewardship. Ben instructs us volunteers to collect an appropriate amount for each species, leaving lots of seeds where they are to feed wildlife and renew our prairies so they look as glorious next spring as they did this year!  The seeds we harvest, along with purchased wildflower seed, can then help restore more of our natural areas to their former glory. All that and peaceful autumn afternoons among wildflowers and kindred spirits. Maybe you’d like to join us next year as we lend nature a helping hand?

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, July 12, 2018.

 

Gray-headed coneflowers at Ilsley in August
Gray-headed Coneflowers at Charles Ilsley Park on August 15, 2018

Fantastic, Forgotten Fields: Using Fire to Manage Open Habitat

When we spend a lot of time in a space, the sound, shadows, and ambience almost become part of our subconscious. The creakkkk of a floorboard as we walk through the living room. The drip of coffee slowly filling the pot in the morning. The rustle of pine boughs in a favorite patch of forest. The harsh call and boastful flash of color from red-wing blackbirds in a marsh. Our happy memories in these places make them special to us.

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Wild lupine in a prairie at Highland State Recreation Area, May 2017.

 

What about the natural spaces that have (almost) ceased to exist in our everyday lives? The prairies and oak savannas of Oakland Township used to have a signature rustle in the evening breeze. Fields of brightly lit prairies were punctuated by speckled shade under oak groves, and seasonal bouquets of native wildflowers marked the transition from spring to summer to fall. Until a few decades ago, the inhabitants of our township had been intimately familiar with the sights and sounds that defined our open oak lands in southeast Michigan for thousands of years.

We now assume that all fields should eventually grow into shrub thickets, then forests. But many plants, birds, insects, and other wildlife are prairie and savanna specialists, with connections to each other that were formed by living together in this landscape. They depend on us re-awakening memories of these fantastic, forgotten fields, doing the important work of making them new.

Western Slope BC mid-August
The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park was one of the units we burned in March 2018. This view is from August 2017. Photo by Cam Mannino.

So two weeks ago, with the help of our volunteer prescribed fire crew, that’s exactly what we set out to do. We assembled around noon at Bear Creek Nature Park. All the staff and volunteers that help on our burns have been trained to do prescribed fire, so they know the drill when they arrive. We double-checked our pre-burn list: introduce everyone on the burn crew and write names on helmets… check; call the fire department… check; walked trails around the burn unit… check; tested equipment… check; everyone is wearing the right gear… check;  weather and fuels meet our burn prescription… check. After reviewing the plan for the day, we headed out to begin burning. The fine grasses were nice and dry, though small patches of snow lingered in the shade on a north-facing slope.

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The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park on the morning of March 23, 2018.

We started on the down-wind side, slowly letting the fire creep into the burn unit.

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Fire slowly backs into the wind.

As we built up a safe, burned buffer on the outside of the unit, we lit parts of the interior. The mowed trails kept the fire exactly where we wanted it, though we checked them often during the burn just to be sure.

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Mark lights part of the burn unit using a drip torch.

As we worked around the burn unit, we let the fire creep through patches of invasive autumn olive and multiflora rose. The slow-moving flames will do more damage to the shrubs than a fire that passes quickly.

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Joan watches fire advance slowly into the shrubs. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.

After we got around the outside of the burn unit, we stepped back to let the fire crawling through the interior finish its work. Then we walked through the area one more time to put out anything that was still smoking.

We had a nice mix of experienced staff, returning volunteers, and new volunteers. By the end of the burn, everyone got a chance to try the different pieces of equipment and responsibilities on the burn crew. And we had fun!

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Alex, Joan, Mike, and Dan are all smiles after a good burn at Bear Creek Nature Park on March 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Mike and Joan Kent.

The fire likely top-killed the invasive shrubs in our burn unit. We’ll still need to treat any that sprout again in the summer, but fire did a lot of work for us in a few hours. The black soil will warm more quickly than areas that haven’t been burned, extending the growing season for the plants. In a few weeks we’ll see a fresh fuzz of green growth carpeting these areas. We will spread seed of more native grasses and wildflowers so that they can establish in the newly opened soil.

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The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park after our burn on March 23, 2018.

That March afternoon was a fine day for making new memories. Our memories of working together as a team to restore grassland habitat are an important part of natural areas stewardship. We only care for the things we value. The township residents that walk these fields will see the dramatic change, watch the landscape grow over the summer, and make their own memories. Hopefully most of the visitors will see the signs we posted, explaining why we use prescribed fire. A few will go home a look up more information. And maybe some will join our team next time we do a prescribed burn!

NestWatch: Being Citizen Scientists in Our Backyards and Parks

A faithful male Rose-breasted Grosbeak takes his turn on the nest at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On March 21, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, shared a Cornell Lab of Ornithology presentation on how to safely and accurately monitor bird nests as citizen scientists. Cornell Lab and other researchers count on citizen scientists to provide important information on the nesting success of common birds in our backyards and our parks. If you’re intrigued by this introductory information, there’s a lot more available at www.Nestwatch.org. It’s an amazing resource, as you’ll see by all of the links below!

First, the Rules of the Road

The Eastern Kingbird looked proud of her handiwork once she finished her nest.

Cornell’s Nestwatch has an official “Code of Conduct” for nest monitors to ensure that the data is collected while protecting native birds, their nests, eggs, and young. It’s important that monitoring doesn’t attract predators and that parent birds don’t desert the nest.

  • Please don’t touch the nest, the birds or the eggs when checking nests or nest boxes!  Migratory Birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  They cannot be harassed or harmed.  The only exceptions are those of aggressive invasive bird species like House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) that are not from North America.  (See more info on predators below.)
  • Don’t check nests in the early morning, which is when birds typically lay their eggs.  If the female leaves the nest during monitoring, the eggs may become too cool.  Afternoons are best for monitoring.
  • Avoid nests during the first few days of incubation. Only approach if the parent bird has left the nest.
  • If monitoring a nest box, tap softly on the box to allow the female to leave if she’s present. Or try singing or talking softly as you approach the nest.
  • Don’t approach nests when baby birds are close to fledging so they won’t try to leave the nest before they are ready. Once young birds are alert and fully fledged, only observe from a distance.
  • Avoid monitoring nests in bad weather like cold, rain, etc., when birds need the nest or nest box for protection
  • Don’t check nests at dusk or after dusk when females may be returning. Again, afternoons are best. The exceptions, of course, are owls who leave their nests at night.
  • Approach and leave the nest site from different directions at each visit so that you don’t create a path for predators like cats, raccoons, etc.
  • More details about the “Code of Conduct” at this link

Collecting and Recording What We Learn

A Cedar Waxwing nestling
  • Visits to the nest should be no longer than a minute. Take a quick look and jot notes at a distance. Use binoculars for more distant cup nests.
  • Check the nest every 3 or 4 days. Checking more often risks disturbing the nest; less often makes the information less useful.
  • Record when the first egg was laid. Birds normally lay only one egg per day, so the number of eggs tells you when she laid her first one. Easy, eh?
  • Record the number of eggs and any interesting bird behavior. (Cornell provides data sheets for this.)
  • Record your data at Nestwatch.org. If you’re working on backyard birds, start an account and you’ll be provided with an online form for entering your data. If you want to volunteer to monitor in our parks or along the Paint Creek Trail, please join our Oakland Township Parks NestWatch Chapter by contacting Dr. Ben at bvanderweide@oaklandtownship.org or call the office at 248-651-7810. You’ll need to take a brief quiz after reading the Code of Conduct material at Cornell in order to be a certified bird monitor.
  • More details on collecting data at this link.

Finding Nests in Our Backyards

A male Yellow Warbler holds a bright green caterpillar for his mate at Bear Creek
  • Check out information on typical nest locations and materials for the birds in your yard by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org. or a bird/nest field guide.
  • Watch where males are singing to establish their territories or listen for females who sometimes sing from the nest.
  • Watch for birds carrying nesting material like moss, twigs or grass.
  • Watch for birds carrying food, like caterpillars or worms, to feed the young.
  • Listen for frantic calls of young birds begging to be fed.
  • Check out areas where you’ve seen nests previous years. Though birds seldom reuse the same nest, they often nest in the same area.
  • More details  on finding nests here.

Setting Up and Monitoring Nest Boxes

A male Eastern Bluebird guarding his nest box.

Dr. Ben and Tom Korb are trying two different kind of Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) boxes in the township – the traditional ones seen above, and Petersen boxes (see left) which have a more triangular shape.

A Peterson bluebird box

We’ll learn which style our bluebirds prefer. They’ve paired the two types bluebird boxes to see which box design our local bluebirds prefer. Paired nest boxes may also help with competition from Tree Swallows. Others have found that if Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) occupy one box, they will live peaceably with bluebirds next door. We’ve also installed American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) boxes and a box for smaller birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, or Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea).

For details on building/buying nest boxes for your back yard, check out this helpful page on nest boxes at  Nestwatch. For more detailed plans on bluebirds and their houses, check out the website of the North American Bluebird Society or this link at Sialis.org. Nestwatch even shows you the right house for the birds in our geographic area.

Beware of Predators!

Predators can approach native birds from the sky and the ground. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Ground Predators
  • Raccoons and outdoor or feral cats are major predators for birds. A well-respected, peer-reviewed study cited by Cornell found that as many as 1.3 to 3.3 billion birds are killed by cats each year in North America. They are skilled bird hunters! And raccoons can wipe out a whole group of nests in an evening!
  • Keeping pet cats indoors is a great idea if at all possible.
  • Make sure your nest box is at least 6 feet off the ground so raccoons and cats can’t jump on top of the box. If they do, they “fish” for eggs and chicks through the hole.
  •  The right roof and predator guards on the bird house pole can make a big difference.
  • Avoid leaving pet food or birdseed on the ground, which encourages predators.
  • Keep your nest box away from overhanging trees to keep squirrels from dropping on them and chewing the holes to get in.
  • Snakes can be deterred by locating nest boxes away from brush piles or by putting a metal collar/predator guard below the nest box on the pole.
Bird Predators

Aggressive, invasive birds, especially the House Sparrow and the European Starling, will attack and kill native birds, their eggs and their young to take over a nest box. Because they are non-native and plentiful, they are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  So how to deal with these predatory characters?

  • If you don’t want to deter invasive birds, please  consider not putting up bird boxes. These invasive birds are already abundant and  actively attack and kill our native species. Providing them with food and a nest merely exacerbates the problems for native birds.
  • Choosing an appropriate entrance hole size on a nest box is important. Starlings can enter and attack American Kestrels in their boxes – but starlings are too large for a bluebird box if the entrance hole is the right size. House Sparrows, however,  can easily attack bluebird boxes. NestWatch has more information on passive and active means of deterring these non-native predators – from changing nest location to removing nests and eggs or trapping adult birds.
  • Be sure you know what Starlings look like and are able to distinguish House Sparrows with their black triangular bibs from our many species of native sparrows.
  •  These two invasive birds make messy nests with bits of plastic, cigarette butts, paper, etc. so distinguishing them from native nests is easier once you are informed about the appearance of your native bird’s nest.
  • Native birds, like House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon),  occasionally attack other birds to take over a nest as well. And native Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Because these birds are naturally occurring species in our area, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act and should not be removed or harmed.
  • Bees, wasps, squirrels and mice can inhabit nest boxes at various times of the year. Nestwatch has info on coping with them, too.

So Why Become  a Nest Monitor?

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Helping our native birds raise their young in safety is crucial to slow the declining numbers of many bird species. Bluebirds, for example, were threatened until citizens began a campaign of installing and monitoring bird boxes for these azure beauties. The data from nest monitors since NestWatch began in 1965 has provided vital information on over 600 species and resulted in 133 scientific articles and 9 ongoing studies. With the data the public collects, researchers can detect  shifts in bird populations related to landscape and climate change. Saving native birds is important to preserving the beauty of our local natural history.

NestWatch Website Button

But beyond all that, c’mon!  What’s more delightful than baby birds? Being a friend to native birds is always good for us, as well as for our feathered friends.

Photo of the Week: A Prairie Progression

Shortly after acquiring the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, volunteers and staff with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation began the process of clearing invasive shrubs in January 2006. This was the scene exactly eleven years ago at one of our unique local prairie remnants, tucked back off the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Rd. As we create new paths for the sunlight to reach the ground each year, prairie plants flower in greater abundance, growing seed to reclaim ground occupied by autumn olive.

Watch the prairie change from 2004 until today in a few pictures below. Our prairie, our heritage, ours to protect.

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