HART BEAT: OUR PURPLE MARTIN COLONY

Purple Martins are colonial nesters. When I first read that fact as a young Boy Scout in my earliest days of birding, I wondered what Purple Martins nesting in the pre-Revolutionary War American Colonies had to do with their then current nesting habits. Not too long after that I learned that “colonial nesters” meant that Purple Martins nest in colonies in close proximity to each other.

And now, many years later, we are maintaining a good-sized Purple Martin colony of our own: 144 gourds in a combination of natural and plastic gourds configured just the way Purple Martins like them, with long necks and spacious round bowls. (top of page) There are six poles with racks containing twenty-four gourds each, with perches on top of the poles where adult Martins relax and watch all the surrounding activity. (photo 2) Each pole has a cranking system so that racks can be lowered regularly, every five days during the breeding season for nest monitoring, and for removal and cleaning out of the gourds for winter storage at the end of the summer.

Purple Martin landlords have three main avian problems with which they must contend: Cooper’s Hawks by day and Great Horned Owls by night consider the Purple Martin colony to be a smorgasbord set up just for them; and European Starlings will kill Martins and take over their gourds for their own nesting purposes. While we have had problems with Cooper’s Hawks in past years and had to personally spend considerable amount of time being present around the colony serving in effect as live human scare crows, this year has been different in that we have not seen any Cooper’s hawks around the colony. However, we have constantly had problems with Great Horned Owls at night.

On three consecutive nest checks this year we found evidence of Great Horned Owl predation as baby Martins had been completely removed from gourds, and in one instance an adult had been killed right in the gourd. We learned that the “dancing scare crow,” a waving, constantly moving balloon-like figure resembling a person, similar to those often seen during promotions at car dealerships, running from just after dark until just before dawn, would deter Great Horned Owls. Since our “dancing scare crow” has been set up we have now had six successive nest checks with no baby Martin losses whatsoever.

The dancer can be seen in the photo of the complete rack set-up. It was operated for only a few moments for this photo opportunity. The Martins do not like the dancer and completely left the area while he was doing his thing. We never run it during the day. As for the Starlings, we have installed Starling proof entrances to most of the gourds, which work well, and by next year expect to have all gourds completely converted.

Our Purple Martins arrive back at the colony on our farm in Pennsylvania in early April (mid to late January at our condo complex in Florida) and keep arriving for the next six weeks. We begin our nest checks in mid-May and it is exciting to find new nests with eggs, or newly hatched babies. (photo 3) Because the Martins nest at different times, during a nest check we can find eggs still being incubated; babies about three or four days old with eyes not yet open; (photo 4) babies seven to 10 days old with eyes now open and just beginning to develop feathers; (photo 5) or babies almost ready to fledge watching us very closely. (photo 6)

An older baby, placed on its back is quite docile and allows examination of the belly fat to determine if the bird is well fed. (photo 7) Sometimes we find dragonflies beneath the gourd racks that the parents have dropped. (photo 8) The always hungry baby birds ravenously gobble down the dragonflies, wings and all, when we deliver the dropped food to them. (photo 9) (Note: all of these photos, except No. 1, were taken during the same nest check on July 8 of this year.) Purple Martins tolerate the nest checks quite well, patiently waiting on the nearby gourd racks as their particular rack is lowered and flying back into their gourds even while the rack is being cranked up to its full height.

This year we expect to fledge 129 baby Purple Martins. While that may sound like quite a few, it is well below our top year, 2016, when we fledged 346 young Martins. That year Martins laid eggs in 98 of the 134 gourds we provided. This year, only 48 gourds of the 144 available housed Martins that laid eggs and raised young. 2016 was a perfect year for the Martins, weather-wise, and we had not yet been discovered by the Cooper’s Hawks or Great Horned Owls. Hopefully, now with the “dancing scare crow,” future years will once again be more productive. Unfortunately, in 2019 our area of Pennsylvania suffered a wet cold spring and Martins had difficulty finding food which discouraged nesting and breeding activity.

Purple Martins rely almost exclusively on housing provided by humans. On only one occasion have we ever found a pair of Purple Martins attempting to nest in a natural tree cavity, (several years ago at Orlando Wetlands Park) and they were under severe pressure from European Starlings. Whether they were successful or not is not now known. Many well intended prospective Martin landlords mount housing but then fail to follow through with monitoring that housing to keep out Starlings and House Sparrows, both of which will kill the Martins to take over the nesting site.

In Florida, houses installed on poles above docks along rivers seem to work well as the invaders appear not to like being over the water. Certainly in Florida, with more Purple Martins, we see many more nesting colonies, often small, containing only one house of four to eight nesting units, than are found in more northern states such as Pennsylvania. But every bit of housing provided is critical to the survival of the Purple Martin population.

We humans are colonial nesters also, if you consider apartments, high-rises, condominium complexes and shoulder to shoulder residential developments as forms of “colonies.” Purple Martins, like humans, will also explore many potential homes before selecting the one they want to raise their “children” in. For example, during nest checks we find that the Martins have formed cups and added material to the pine straw that we supply in almost every gourd, but then only select a certain specific preferred gourd for their own. And like many of us “Snow-birds,” when the cold weather arrives, Purple Martins have long since migrated south, primarily to Brazil.

It is truly amazing the similarities in raising families by birds and humans. Oh yeah, they sometimes squabble with their neighbors too.

HART BEAT: NO BABY LOONS AGAIN!

Common Loons

It’s June again, time to head to Maine for the annual (five years and running) attempt to photograph baby Loons riding on their parent’s back. After eight days of exhaustive searching we found only one active nest with a Common Loon incubating eggs on an old derelict unused dock. On this same lake in past years we have typically found five or six nesting pairs. Also, contrary to past years, when we found nests with an incubating parent (yes, both parents incubate the eggs, unlike duck species, where only the female stays on the nest) the other parent was always in the water patrolling close by. Unfortunately, this year we saw only one such instance, while on a number of other occasions pairs of Loons were travelling together, suggesting their nesting efforts had already failed. The particular lake we surveyed has suffered considerable fluctuation of water levels as this has been the wettest spring in years. Consequently, it is easy to surmise that other Loon nesting attempts this year have been flooded out as Loons typically nest inches above the water level and right at the water’s edge.

We monitored the one nest we found daily, hoping to discover that the eggs had hatched and the babies were now happily riding on their parent’s back. Regrettably, we arrived one morning to find that one intact egg was out of the nest and the second eggshell was broken and also out of the nest. (photo 2) Our initial hope was that one egg had hatched and the baby was now happily riding on the mother’s back. Those hopes were soon dashed when we found the Loon pair not far from the nest without any young anywhere in sight. Oh well, maybe next year will be the charm.

Serendipitously, while in Maine I received an email from a reader suggesting a Hart Beat topic: “Do birds have variations in body parts like humans? … Could it be that birds have variations in bill size like humans have different noses? Maybe they do have legs longer or shorter, height differences, etc. …” Of the many Loon photos I took on this trip, one was a close-up of a pair (photo 1 at the top of the page) which clearly discloses the difference in the markings on the neck bands of each. I wondered whether these differences could be the equivalent of finger prints in humans. Despite considerable conversation with Mr. Google I was not able to find a definitive answer to this question. However, as to the reader’s suggested topic: Loons do vary in size and weight from 7 to 15 pounds; males are generally 25% larger than females; territorial males are the biggest and strongest and have the best projection in yodeling their territorial calls; relative size and weight is critical in male Loons establishing and defending their territories, as well as in challengers seeking to take over a territory; some males are sneaky and will attempt to mate with a mated female if the opportunity arises; and larger heavier birds are able to stay under water longer and thus may be more successful in catching fish.

The answer to our reader’s question: Yes, there is significant variation in the body parts of birds. A close examination of the pair in the photo above discloses different head shapes, and bill and body sizes, as the larger one is undoubtedly the male and the smaller one on the left is the female. While we humans may have difficulty noticing the variations in different individuals of a bird species, the birds themselves are certainly aware of those differences and establish their “pecking orders” accordingly.

While we were once again unsuccessful in our quest for photos of baby Loons on their parent’s backs, that does not mean we did not take pictures. Watching a Loon preen one cannot help but be impressed with the large webbed foot dangling in the air (photo 3) which the Loon uses exclusively for its underwater propulsion. When swimming the Loon’s wings are tucked tight to the body, the tail acts as a rudder, and the feet, far back on the body drive the bird forward. After a swim, as the Loon prepares to rise and flap its wings to get all the feathers back in proper alignment in a process called “rousing,” the image “aircraft carrier” came to mind. (photo 4) And finally, when the Loon rises just off the water to flap its wings it is an impressive sight. (photo 5) In addition, drifting close to islands in the lake searching for Loon nests, we had the opportunity to observe numerous Eastern Kingbirds and a Red-eyed Vireo gathering nesting material, which is a sight not likely to occur in Florida.

And so, Dear Reader, another Maine summer trip is now in the books, and while unsuccessful for our hoped for baby bird shot, it was still a fun and happy trip in all other respects. Many hours of delightful time were spent on the waters of the beautiful lake, many happy hours socializing with some of our best friends, and many photos of wonderful and exciting birds, even if not the specific shot we hoped for. In the midst of it all came a most thought-provoking email sparking a challenge to produce photos that illustrated the unique differences in individual birds within a given species. Hopefully, the above photo meets that challenge, at least in some small way. But it is probably too early to begin planning next June’s trip. We still have the rest of this summer, a winter in Florida and all of the anticipation of next spring to get through before that trip. It’s hard to think about it, but maybe actually finding and photographing our target baby birds might now be anti-climactic and we certainly don’t want to lose our excuse to take our annual Maine trip. Not any more than climate change might deprive us of our excuse to winter in Florida. Not likely!!!

For information on why baby birds of some species ride on their parent’s backs, see: blogs.discovermagazine.com/inkfish/2017/11/30/why-some-bird-babies-ride-piggyback/#.XQ06QOhKibg.

For earlier Hart Beat columns on previous Maine trips, see: Crazy About Loons and An Unsuccessful Trip?

HART BEAT: LEAST BITTERNS

HART BEAT: LEAST BITTERNS

“There is a pair of Least Bitterns on a nest down at Green Cay, and I’m pretty sure I know where it is. Do you want to go with me to check it out?” Now that is the kind of call that is virtually impossible to resist.

Off we went to Green Cay a day later. Unfortunately, the nest was not where my friend thought it was, but we found local birders who did know exactly where the nest was and informed us where to look. “The nest is so deep in the reeds that you won’t be able to see it, but the birds do move around and if you are patient, eventually you will see one or the other of the pair.” How prophetic that piece of information turned out to be! Many of you, Dear Readers, have heard me say that the one thing I have learned in all my years of birding is Patience, with a capital P. And here again it proved invaluable.

HART BEAT: MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS

“Frigatebirds don’t nest anywhere on the Treasure Coast. They only nest on the Dry Tortugas.” That’s the message I have heard ever since we started coming to the Treasure Coast of Florida, (Indian River, St Lucie and Martin Counties, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Stuart, for those readers unfamiliar with that area of east coast Florida) in the early1990s even though we saw Magnificent Frigatebirds flying along the coast regularly.

On March 14, 2011, I was fortunate enough to take a boat trip to a small mangrove island on the west side of the Indian River just off Sewall’s Point in Martin County, where male Magnificent Frigatebirds were displaying in full red throat regalia, obviously trying to entice females into breeding activity. Note the envious male with the deflated throat (gular) sac eyeing the magnificent performer. While there were numerous Frigatebirds, including males, females and juveniles, there was no evidence of nesting there then, and unfortunately, I was not able to get back to that island again later that year, or any intervening occasion until April 16th of this year, 2019.

HART BEAT: BARBED WIRE BIRDS

HART BEAT: BARBED WIRE BIRDS

Barbed wire is mean stuff. It has lots of sharp edges and can cut and cause scratches for the unsuspecting and is just a notch below razor wire for keeping unwanted “guests” out and preventing fruit trees, vegetables, cows, horses, goats and the like from wandering about.

Under no circumstances is it any bird photographer’s preferred posing pedestal for capturing the portrait of some beautiful bird. (No, I do not intend to again discuss my disdain for photographing birds on man-made objects.) But sometimes some birds just seem to prefer to spend most of their time on barbed wire fences.

HART BEAT: JOE OVERSTREET ROAD

“Joe Overstreet Road never ceases to amaze me. There always seems to be some new bird that I haven’t seen there before.” The speaker was a participant on a recent St Lucie Audubon field trip to this less well known, but excellent, birding location in central Florida on the southern edge of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes just north of Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and about 45 miles south of Orlando.

I have birded the area pretty regularly for the past 15 years and have written HartBeat columns about it twice (February 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018). We did find a couple of species on this field trip, and the scouting trip four days earlier, that I had not seen there before, or at least we saw them much better than ever before.

HART BEAT: CHRISTMAS BIRDS IN ST. LUCIE

“Get your camera and come with me; you have to get a photo of this bird!” Jewel then showed me a cell phone photo she had taken through her telescope of a Gray-headed Swamphen (until a recent name change, Purple Swamphen), identifiable but not completely satisfactory, in her Christmas Count area earlier that very day. As it was then 3:30 in the afternoon, we still had time to go find the bird and try to get photos before the Christmas Count meeting at 5 pm.

NORTHERN GANNETS & BIRDER FOLLY

NORTHERN GANNETS & BIRDER FOLLY

The email asked for any photos I might have of Northern Gannets that might be used to accompany a newspaper interview on the gannets. I knew I only had a few recent photos from out on the beach during a recent trip to Merritt Island….

Sometime later I remembered that I had taken some Northern Gannet photos from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia back in 2008, in the very earliest days of my attempts at bird photography, and wondered whether with the magic of modern post-processing I could rehabilitate them into passable photos for this column. I found them after some searching, (I never throw anything away) and recalled the effort I went through to get them, which is the story I recount here now, 10 years later.

HART BEAT: REDDISH

HART BEAT: REDDISH

You completely missed Reddish.” A relatively new HartBeat reader who had just acquired a copy of Volume 1 of the HartBeat columns (Volume 2 is currently being edited for publication by my son) was commenting on one of the early columns in the book entitled  “Red By Any Other Name.”

He was right: there was red, cardinal, scarlet, crimson, and vermilion, as the column featured the Vermilion Flycatcher. But I had failed to include reddish. Thankfully, he did not mention that I also missed rose, rosy, roseate, ruby, ruddy, rufous and rusty, all presumably additional shades of red. But for now, the focus is on reddish, as in the Reddish Egret, the only bird featuring that descriptive name.

HART BEAT: YELLOWTHROATS

The doctor’s new patient information form I was required to fill out included three questions I had not encountered before. They wanted to know my “color,” “ethnicity,” and my “country of origin.” “Color” was easy: I was “sun-tanned with various bruise splotches” caused by the blood thinning medications I take. I was not sure what they were asking for in “ethnicity,” so I checked the definition and found “…belonging to a social group…with common cultural tradition.” OK, I am an environmentalist, belonging to a number of environmental organizations, so “environmentalist” went down on the form. “Country of origin” proved to be a more difficult question.