Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bluebirds - Secret Polygamists Polyandrist or Failure to Launch?

Now wait a minute you all are saying . . . but really. I can only report what I observe with my own eyes and I can hardly make this stuff up.

I've been tracking bluebirds on my property for seven years now and have seen many a pair of bluebirds successfully fledge young every year, but this season has been wild and woolly, unpredictable and strange.

See below the sentinel bluebird male guarding his box with insect in beak, ready to feed his hungry babies.

I watched for about a half our while he and his wife flew off with purposeful wing beats which time and time again brought them fruit for their labor. Green worms, black worms, black gnats, creepy centipedes, long-legged winged things... If they could catch it, it could be brought back and be fed to the babies in their nest box.

I sat in the field and timed my photos trying to capture some good aerial shots of the bluebirds; I was not really studying the whole picture. But then I stopped looking through the viewfinder and studied the situation a little more closely.

And I observed that not one, but TWO different males were feeding the babies in the box. It was one of those both eyebrows raised to my hairline moments when I could not believe what I was seeing.

The boys would take turns with the female feeding the hungry brood! I have heard of offspring from the first clutch of the year feeding the second clutch of the year, but this was a full grown male and this was the first clutch this season . . .

It was cool to catch two birds in the same frame (above). To me it's a very hard task to accomplish when they are on the wing.

Side note: I am amazed at birds maneuverability in the air. They are so graceful and fast and accurate all at once. It's no wonder we land stricken humans want to fly.

And the chow kept coming. Mom then DAD and DAD(?) brought in food. To be truthful, I immediately thought that the second male feeding the babies must be a full grown son of the two breeding birds. He had to have overwintered with them and traveled back to this nest box where he was born with his parents.

With one claw carefully gripping the entrance hole, this momma bluebird will reach through to feed her young.

Then parents will reach through and grab a baby bird dropping out of the box and drop it outside (see photo below). The bluebird parents routinely remove offal from the nest box. And I observed all three birds take droppings from inside the box to keep it clean. Now that's a great big brother to help like that. Now he just needs his own woman and to move away from home.

And another shot of the man of the house giving me the evil eye.

"Stay away from my house!"

And the weirdest part of this story is that a few days ago, I put up a new bluebird box to replace one that had been ripped off by a HORSE. (Naughty horse but that is another story...) AND the mom bluebird seen above, abandoned ship and started to set up a new nest with a third male bluebird who was hanging around our property. Meanwhile the Dad and Son kept on feeding the babies in the box minus MOM!!!

I took the new box down in hope that she would go back to her babies but no. The bluebird males were left to fend for themselves with four hungry bluebird babies.

There are strange things afoot in the world of bluebirds on our property. Strange indeed. The babies should be fledging in the next few days so if I can, I'll try to keep track of what the "dad's" do with their four kids.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I am on Shrike! I am on Shrike!

I have not been really, totally, super, hopping, jumping excited for ages about a bird nesting on our property. We have bluebirds, swallows, doves, killdeer and magpies that all use our trees and grasslands for their nesting sites. So, I guess I have been a bit spoiled and bored with my own personal national geographic happening in my back yard.

BUT today I spotted a pair of rare-ish birds called the loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) who have built their nest in a young cottonwood tree next to my arena. I just about jumped off my horse and did the happy dance right then and there. But my horse would have been confused, so I just watched for a few minutes as the female went to and fro gathering sticks and leaves. She repeatedly flew up to her crook and tucked the pieces into her nest.

Can you see him? They camouflage very well.

I have seen shrikes flying along and perching on our fence line off and on for the past 9 years but never found a nest. For several years I did not observe them at all and missed seeing their flashing wing beats and the black diamond signatures that can be spotted on their outstretched wings.

Here's a closer look. I think they resemble a mocking bird on steroids.

This is the unassuming tree that has been chosen to host the loggerhead shrike family. Shrikes require open grassland habitat with shrubs or trees scattered here and there. I see that our property has finally met this fabulous birds requirements.

There is an ancient decrepit walnut tree next to my arena that I have often considered cutting down but don't. It is always used by many different birds as a perch though out the year and in all kinds of weather. Raptors use this tree like the red-tail hawk, American kestrel and white-shoulder kite. The Corvids love it and crows and magpies sit atop the dead branches. The loggerhead shrikes are no exception. I think the tree will be there for years to come.

Loggerhead shrikes feed on small insects, large insects, lizards and even mice! Shrikes are known to hang their prey on barb wire fences, nails or sharp wood, and come back later to eat the poor victim when it is totally dead. I can't wait to see how this pair hunts on our property. Let the carnage begin!

It's windy up there atop the tree. Hold on...

And here are the lovebirds below.

After lunch I went out and parked where I could take some photos of this pair in action. I have to work to get some better close ups. These photos are with the 300mm zoom lens but I could attempt sitting quietly near their tree to see if they can stand the paparazzi.

Here we have momma loggerhead shrike in her nest (Above). She is hard to see now, and by the time the cottonwood tree fully leafs out her nest will be impossible to view. They made an excellent choice for cover.

And no woman likes a picture taken of her butt. Lady shrikes can give dirty looks too.

And here is the nest from a different angle.

I can't wait to see the babies in a few weeks!! Yippee!

Shrikes are on the decline in the west and all of North America due to the loss of grassland habitat from farming and the ubiquitous urban sprawl. Many conservation groups are trying to create conditions that will allow the recovery of this species.

Shrikes are fierce and bold and aggressive! I think they could be a symbol worthy to represent our country as well as a bald eagle. Rock on my little shrikes! I can't wait to track the progress of your nesting!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Pair of Super Heros, Kidzilla, and the Scarecrow-Ballerina - Aren't Cousins the Best?

There are days which shall live in infamy at the King Compound due to the sullen and miserable attitudes that spread from kid to kid like a virulent super virus ravaging the country side . . . But I am glad to report that there are the days when the cousins get along like the best of friends and play in uninhibited ways that make me want to be a little kid again, like today.

As I was sitting on my stoop at the base of our porch, Ella went dashing inside with something on her mind. I was preoccupied taking pictures of the boys playing on the sand pile. They were pushing and shoving and "wrastling" the way boys should. They were having a grand time playing king of the mountain, which in itself would have been a great post.

BUT . . .

Ella shortly returned donning . . . da da dah . . . her "Super E" cape and mask! Some cousin busting was about to begin! Or something like that.

Away she flew across the graveled yard in her bare feet. Obviously she has developed the required callouses for such brazen galloping over the angular rock surface. Those with tender feet can look away now. It only gets worse.

Circling around the Kubota tractor parked near the sand pile she assessed the situation. Boys. Lots of them. What is a girl to do?

I know she's thinking, "I'm Super Ella! Ready for the world. And then some!"

Meanwhile, Cousin Adam, spying his littlest cousin dressed for battle, raced into the house to find his own apparel to begin combat. Blazing down the steps, nearly leaping over me in a single bound he faced his arch-rival to commence in a "Super Hero" war. Not one to shy from danger Super Ella squared off against the evil "Baseball Cap Boy!" Let the ruckus begin!

Then a super hero chase commenced with the dastardly Baseball Cap Boy taking the upper hand and Super Ella dashing off like a gleeful pink-legged gazelle.

They ran this way and that. Zigging and zagging. Poor Super Ella's cape became loose and as she ran for her life as Baseball Cap Boy taunted her ruthlessly.

The pursuit continued . . . It looked like the end of the road for Super Ella. What was left to do? Baseball Cap Boy would soon catch her and then what? Would he steal her cape? Her mask? Revoke her pink super powers?


A new character appeared on the scene . . .

It was green, loud, and ferocious. It wore horns and breathed fire. With an appetite for destruction there would soon be a change in power.

BOOM . . .
BOOM . . .
BOOM . . .
BOOM . . .

It was . . .


Right out of a 1960's movie, the scaly beast staggered from the ocean to commence in the chase of BOTH super hero cousins. The pandemonium continued.

But Baseball Cap Boy rallied and turned on Kidzilla. I guess all those heavy scales really keep a monster from running too long in the 80 degree weather.

And during the commotion a staggering fourth body emerged to do battle royale with Super Ella. Suddenly, Scarecrow Ballerina showed up from a strange broadway musical. He earned bonus points for originality and daring. And since he was wearing a tutu, Super Ella was not afraid. Not that ballerinas are wimps. She just knows how they think.

And with her slap down she showed the dancing Scarecrow Ballerina who was boss!

Finally, to escape from the clash of the titans, Super Ella retreated to the safety of the play structure where she could safely cheer on the chaos and observe her adversaries. Battling Baseball Cap Boy, running from Kidzilla and doing the chicken dance with Scarecrow Ballerina was exciting but taxing stuff...

But spying across the yard she observed a sagging monster. He was sitting by himself. Alone. What could this mean?

Kidzilla was down. But was he out? Was he injured? Hmmm?

Nope. It was a moment of zen. Perfect minutes in a kids perfect world.

Who'd have thought Halloween costumes pulled out from the closet in April could be so entertaining. No fools here this April, just fun.

I have to stop every now and then to appreciate that my kids have their cousins to play with next door, and that these close cousins will creatively interact with each other on a level that I can't see them doing with classmates.

Since we live next door to my sister and brother in law, one of the greatest benefits is that our kids can play like siblings in the day and have time away at night with their family to make the next day fresh again. Of course these cousins can fight like vile little alley cats and act naughty towards one another on other days, but I have to stop and thank fate that there are moments of brilliance when four little bodies and minds find that same wave and ride it.

The Day the Swallows Came Home

The tree swallows are here already.  They arrived January 30 much to my dismay.  Swooping and calling and chirping their merry song over my ...