by Joanna Reuter

by Joanna Reuter

During the pandemic, many of us are likely to find that birding involves regular visits to local spots rather than far-flung adventures to distant destinations. One way to make the most of this is to pay special attention to nesting patterns and savor the benefit of being able to follow a year in the life of a bird family (or many). Here are a few observations and musings regarding the rewarding hobby of nest watching:

Nest materials

Last spring, Eric & I observed some interesting uses of nesting materials. Here are three brief accounts:

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers build small cup nests on open branches. Finding one of these nests poking up from a branch is a treat; viewed through binoculars, the lichens coating the outside of the nest are visible. What other materials go into the nest? Last year, we got a partial answer as we watched a gnatcatcher harvest the silky tufts from the seedpod of a dogbane plant (Apocynum cannabinum); it then carried the material to the nest and incorporated it into the lining.
Deer are a real problem on our farm, and folk wisdom suggests putting human hair on fences as a repellent. Does it work? I have no conclusive data. But, hey, what else is there to do with the material that accumulates in my hairbrush? Last year, a side benefit came out of this method, as a Northern Parula identified these hair clumps on our vegetable field fence as a source of nesting material. Here are some notes from my eBird list from May 5, 2019 that accompany the report of Northern Parula with a breeding code of “Carrying Nesting Material (Confirmed)” (full list here):

“Details: I saw 4 visits to the hair wads on the fence around 7:15 pm, clearly collecting strands of hair for nesting material. Also saw this behavior once in the middle of the day a few days ago. The hair removal technique seemed more practiced and efficient compared to the other day: Use the bill to grab onto one or more strands, then tug by lowering the body with a little flapping. Nest must be beyond the visual range of the field.

“A TUTI [Tufted Titmouse] also appeared to be interested in the hair wads. Before I saw the NOPA [Northern Parula] this evening, I looked up to see a TUTI investigating a hair wad. It looked like it was trying to get hair out, but I never saw it successfully retrieve any hair. It started scolding, and during one visit of the NOPA, the TUTI came very close to the NOPA and the hair wad, seeming agitated.”

Watching a warbler using some practiced acrobatics to show up a clumsy titmouse was a lot of fun. And I love the thought of baby parulas in a nest lined with my hair!

The third case was particularly curious. During the 2018 growing season, I had a variety of cucurbits including gourds and bitter melons growing on a trellis in the garden. Come spring 2019, I had cleaned off the bulk of the vegetation, but many tight-clinging tendrils remained. Much to my surprise, as I worked in the garden, a female Summer Tanager started coming to that trellis to collect tendrils. She was particular, as indicated by notes from my May 14 eBird list:

“at 11:40am, saw the female from yesterday come back to the trellis for cucurbit tendrils; she had a hard time detaching the pieces she wanted, and I saw her go to 4 different tendrils before she managed to pick off a piece to her liking; small pieces broke off a couple of times, but she spit those out; she seemed to be going for the longer pieces; the one she carried off this time was approx 4 or 5 inches long”

I later found the nest, which was in a droopy branch about 15 feet off the ground near the stream. It seems that the nest was never finished, and later in the year, that branch broke, putting the  nest at a level that I could photograph. The bottom never got filled in, but the tendrils that she made so many trips to collect are clearly visible.

Inferring territories

This is a map I prepared last year of my best estimates of core territories for several selected species within my own daily habitat zone. It may not be fully accurate, but it is my best interpretation from many days spent outside listening while I worked. Revisiting the map, I’m already noticing differences between last year and this year, and I’m thinking that keeping annual notes of this type would be a fun goal. Some species are easier to work out than others. Wonder why there are no cardinals on the map? Aside from being married to a Royals fan, there are enough around that I just haven’t been able to keep track of them.

Identifying nests

Of the above photos, can you identify the Ovenbird nest? The Louisiana Waterthrush nest? The Indigo Bunting nest that was built in an okra plant above an okra flower that grew an okra?

Nests can be challenging to identify. One of the easiest ways to identify a nest is to identify the bird that is using it, but sometimes that is not possible. Another good resource is the Macaulay Library, which has search functions that allow for filtering for photos of nests of a given species. Photos can be submitted to the Macaulay Library simply by attaching them to an eBird list.

Citizen science opportunities: eBird and NestWatch

A couple methods exist to report observations regarding nesting through citizen science platforms.

NestWatch has a detailed protocol that entails repeated nest visits and tracking of nest outcomes, with guidance on the care necessary to minimize chances of negatively impacting the nest. It is a great option for nests that are positioned such that eggs and young can be counted, and for people who have time and mental energy to keep track of nest visit schedules.

Another option is to report through eBird, making use of the breeding codes and note-taking opportunities it provides. The breeding codes are explained in more detail on this eBird help page. Though eBird does not yet summarize breeding codes in an easy-to-view way on the website, these observations contribute useful data about breeding activity of birds worthy of future analysis.

© Joanna Reuter 2020