This Week in Stewardship: Nest Box Monitoring and Our Citizen Scientists

If you frequent our Oakland Township parks, you might notice bird nest boxes in a few parks. Several times a week, a group of volunteers monitors these boxes for our Natural Areas Stewardship program using the protocols from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch effort. This program’s aim is to study the trends and conditions of the breeding bird populations across the United States. These trends can help show the results of climate change, loss of habitat, and effects of invasive species.

The Nest Watch Program

The NestWatch program is not just confined to organizations like Oakland Township Parks or research groups – it can also be done in your own backyard with little to no equipment necessary! If you simply have the NestWatch app, you can observe nests found in your own backyard. Data from one nest in your backyard might seem insignificant. However if done correctly, consistently, and combined with the many observations of other citizen scientists, your nest data can be of great use. If you would like more information as to how to monitor in your own backyard, click the link below: https://nestwatch.org/about/overview/. Nests can be in nest boxes, like ours, but you can also monitor open cup nests, nests in natural tree cavities, or any other nests you find.

Alex installs a new nest box at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2019. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Currently we have boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. We only install boxes when we know that we’ll have volunteers to check and maintain them. Nest boxes that aren’t maintained can be traps where birds are more easily taken by predators, or they can be breeding sites for invasive birds like House Sparrows and European Starlings. We chose nest box locations after deciding which native birds we wanted our boxes to benefit. For example, an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) requires open space to nest, while a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) prefers woodlots or forests. We are mostly working to benefit Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, so we placed nearly all of our nest boxes in open fields. The boxes are paired up to help bluebirds and swallows fend off nest predators and invasive species.

Paired nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Cam Mannino.

During the breeding season volunteers visit the nest boxes about two times per week. At each visit they check to see if a nest box is being used. If in use, they document the bird species, number of eggs, number of young, and other relevant details. The volunteers also maintain the nest boxes during the summer and clean out the boxes in the winter to prepare for new inhabitants the following year.

Donna and Louise – Citizen Scientists at Draper Twin Lake Park

We are only able to perform this monitoring program because of the amazing volunteers, our citizen scientists. We just wanted to give a big thank you to all of our volunteers as they devote several hours, numerous times a week to this project. Without their hard work and dedication to monitoring these boxes, we would not be able to contribute to the NestWatch program.

While all of the volunteers are amazing and we appreciate every last one of them, we wanted to spotlight two particular volunteers, Donna and Louise. They have been monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park since we began the program in 2018. I recently had the opportunity to join Donna on her monitoring trip out to Draper Twin Lake Park. She describes her time nest box monitoring as time well spent. She wants to spend her days doing something of quality and continuing to learn. That drive for more knowledge is what pushed Donna to volunteer with us. One of her favorite moments is when the young leave the nest, as she can now watch them grow and mature into adults. When I asked if she had any tips for people who were considering monitoring nests or setting up boxes of their own, her advice was to be courageous and most importantly be respectful. The data collection is secondary to what is actually happening in the nest.

Another great volunteer I wanted to highlight is Donna’s partner volunteer at Draper Twin Lake Park, Louise. She started monitoring with us because she wanted to help out our stewardship department however she could. Before monitoring with us, she already had two years of experience doing this in her backyard, where she grew particularly attached to barn swallows. Despite the time commitment, she has continued to monitor at Draper because she loves doing it and loves to see the prairie change throughout the season. She takes notes on the different things she sees, and uses the information learned to help restore her own personal property.

One of Louise’s favorite moments, besides working with Donna, happened one day when she was walking with her husband, Jim at Draper. They saw a pair of sandhill cranes with juveniles poking their heads out of the grass in the northeast prairie planting. When I asked Louise if she had any tips for new monitors, she advised people to take full advantage of all of the great resources that Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to offer. She also encouraged folks to talk to other birders, who generously pass along good insights and knowledge. Donna and Louise’s heart for nature, and dedication to observing what is happening in it, makes them the ideal volunteers! We would like to thank them and the rest of our citizen scientists who monitor for us each year!

Nest boxes nestled in prairie. Photo by Cam Mannino.

Want to Help?

If you want to learn more about the NestWatch program, click the link below and click the LEARN tab (https://nestwatch.org/). If you are interested in monitoring with Oakland Township Parks next season, or just want to learn more about our program, please email Grant Vander Laan (gvanderlaan@oaklandtownship.org).

Seed Collecting: Using Nature’s Way of Restocking

In October we’ve been collecting native plant seed in our parks. After all the work of growing, flowering, and making seed, plants have one more task for the year: dispersing the seed. Fluffy seeds ride the wind, buoyant seeds float on water, tasty seeds ride in the guts of animals, and “sticker” seeds cling to animal fur (or your favorite pair of socks!). And a few seeds ride in the paper bags of industrious humans! So it’s all hands on deck to collect seed during harvest time!

Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) just starting to form its seed. This is an example of seeds that are not quite mature enough to collect yet.

We collect native seeds to continue our natural areas restoration work throughout the parks. In 2019 we spread quite a bit of seed at Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and Bear Creek Nature Park in areas where we had removed invasive shrubs. The competition from native plants helps prevent non-native species from coming back. We also spread native plant seed after controlled burns to help increase plant diversity in an area.

We try to remove only about one-third of the available seed for any of our target species. We want to leave enough seed to maintain healthy populations of native plants, while also providing food for birds and other wildlife. If the area is large enough we collect from many different plants to ensure that our seed has lots of genetic diversity.

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We collect seed on a small scale, so we mostly harvest by hand. For some plants we simply snip the dried inflorescence from the plant, collecting the entire seed head. This method works best for species that are very tough and difficult to remove by hand (Black-eyed Susan), and for plants with seed that might shake off easily (asters). We also strip seed from the stem by hand. We use this method for many grasses when the seeds are mature and easy to remove from the stem. We place the collected seed in paper bags so that it can dry without molding or rotting.

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning in 2018.

After the seed dries we clean it so that it is easier to mix and spread. We remove the seeds from the seed heads, pods, or other “fruits,” and winnow out any excess plant material. We only need the seed clean enough to combine with other species in seed mixes. We aren’t too worried about some extra leaves, stems, and other chaff.  Our end product is a nice bag of seed packaged in plastic bag to keep extra moisture out.

Alyssa with our stock of native plant seed from 2018.

We are almost finished collecting seed for the season since most of the plants have dispersed their seeds. Keep an eye out for next year’s fall newsletter to see which days we will be collecting seed in 2020. If you are interested in helping us this year, we have a seed cleaning work day on December 3, 2019 from 12:30 – 3:30 pm at Watershed Ridge Park (1720 W. Buell Rd). If you have any questions about this work day or any questions about seed collecting don’t hesitate to ask!

THIS WEEK IN STEWARDSHIP: A Summary of Summer

This post was written by our stewardship technicians, whose season officially ended at the end of September. We are thankful for their contributions to keeping our natural areas beautiful!

As the season for the summer crew ends, we would like to thank Alex and Marisa (seasonal land stewardship technicians) and Alyssa (our former Stewardship Specialist) for all of their hard work. Grant started as a seasonal technician this year, and will be staying on as our new Stewardship Specialist. They got hands-on experience natural areas management, obtained different certifications, and gained leadership experience that will help in their future endeavors. Our crew always had a positive, hardworking attitude that we will miss! We wish you all the best of luck!

The crew

The 2019 natural areas stewardship staff (L-R): Ben, Alyssa, Marisa, Grant, and Alex

During this field season, the crew gained experience with many tasks. The season started with the installation of new nest boxes and the restoration of old ones at Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. These boxes were set up for the purpose of increasing the bluebird and tree swallow populations. An enthusiastic group of volunteers monitored all of the boxes through from April to August!

A Tree Swallow checks out the new nesting possibilities.

A tree swallow on one of the new Peterson-style nest boxes we installed at Bear Creek Nature Park this year.

Then it was straight into garlic mustard removal. The crew pulled garlic mustard from many parks like Cranberry Lake Park, O’Connor Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and many others.  It takes quite a long time to remove garlic mustard from these parks, but it is truly necessary to prevent its detrimental effects in mature forest. We found less garlic mustard this year, so our persistent work seems to be paying off! If you would like to know more about garlic mustard, how to identify it, or more please visit the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network website.

 

During this season, the crew completed native landscaping at Gallagher Creek Park around the new playground. They were able to plant over 25 different species of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges, as well as six species of trees and shrubs. The purpose of the native garden beds is to help educate the public on different kinds of native species that they could use in their own landscaping. It was also planted with pollinators in mind, including bees and monarch butterflies. We even found some monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed in August! Don’t forget to check this area through the year as this cool mix of native plants continually repaints its canvas.

 

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Our next big task was controlling crown vetch (Securigaria varia) and swallow-wort (Cynanchum species) in the parks. These two species are a high priority for us, so we treat them anywhere we find them in the parks. Like garlic mustard, they are aggressive, and beat out native species for nutrients and space. The control was done using herbicides due to the ineffectiveness of hand pulling, mowing, and burning.

DTLP_Swallowwort2019

Swallow-wort is an invasive plant that is related to milkweeds. It makes seeds attached to fluffy parachutes, so it can spread long distances to new areas.

After that the crew moved on to do woody invasive species control, including common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, privet, honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, and autumn olive. This control was mainly done at Bear Creek Nature Park using the cut stump technique. The crew was able to get through a large portion of the park, as well as put a large dent in the glossy buckthorn that has taken over the area around the marsh on the north side of the park. Like most invasive species, both buckthorn and autumn olive have a tendency to out compete native species, take over areas, and become detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. Buckthorn can lower the water table in wetlands, and secretes a chemical that interferes with amphibian reproduction!

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Marisa shows off a pile of buckthorn cut during a volunteer workday this summer

Some smaller tasks that were completed were our yearly photo monitoring of several parks including Gallagher Creek Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Stony Creek Ravine, and a few others. These photos are for our records to see the changes in these areas over time. We also completed our lake monitoring (Secchi disk and total phosphorus) which was done through the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program (CLMP). This is done to monitor the quality of the lake and help identify problems.

 

The crew had the opportunity to attend workshops throughout the season including one that focused on the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, a chainsaw safety workshop, and a wetland grass identification training. They also received several different certifications including first aid, CPR, herbicide applicator, and chainsaw safety and use.

Chainsaw

Marisa practices various cuts with a chainsaw during our training workshop

Throughout the summer, there have been several different volunteer workdays and Wednesday bird walks. These include garlic mustard control, woody invasive species control, and providing assistance for our native plantings. We would like to extend a big thank you to everyone that came out and helped us at these different volunteer work days. The Wednesday bird walks are lead by Ben, the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, and take place at a rotation of five parks. If you are interested in volunteering or attending the bird walks, please check our the website pages linked above or the parks newsletter for upcoming events.

Bird walk

Marisa finds a bird in her binoculars at the Wet Prairie

It has been a long field season, but the crew has managed to complete a lot this summer. It is rewarding to see all that we accomplished! Be sure to be on the look out for the occasional update this winter from Ben or Grant, the new Stewardship Specialist.

Rattlesnake

Thanks to 2019 stewardship crew for all of your excellent work!

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