Saturday, July 7, 2012

All of the Bird Babies

Today was officially Bird Nests / Adorable Bird Babies / Bird Reproductive Effort day. Well, it actually started yesterday while we were doing data-entry. During a pause in the entering of data, Dave casually remarked, “Oh, I found the Spotted Sandpiper nest today!”

By the Spotted Sandpiper nest he meant the nest I had been looking for for weeks now. Every time I would walk up the trail to the dock, to go check nests at Pepperell Cove, a sandpiper would flush out from this one big rock on the side of the trail, and I would always notice it a split second too late to pinpoint the location of its nest.

One day, out of sheer frustration, I even climbed up onto the rock and braved a full-fledged Great Black-backed attack to comb what I thought was every inch of the rock for the nest, all to no avail. And here was Dave telling me that all one had to do to see the nest is walk up to the rock and look down.

“Are you serious?” I asked him. “OK, I'll go find this nest tomorrow.”

Tomorrow rolled around and I spent literally fifteen minutes, pacing the length of the rock, inspecting every single indentation really, really closely and not spotting anything. Just then the Seal Interns happened to walk by.

“Are you looking for the sandpiper nest?” Christine asked as she and Lauren walked up the path towards me.

“Yes, and I can't find it! Apparently only Dave can see it!” I cried, throwing my hands up in frustration and looking down.

And there it was. Nestled cosily behind a yellow flower and under some leaves. Four neat little eggs. The evocation of Dave's name was the needed magical touch, I suppose.

Discovery of the Spotted Sandpiper nest

Similarly, while walking back from a low-tide survey for banded gulls yesterday evening, Dave remarked, without breaking stride, that he'd found an Eastern Kingbird nest.

“What, where?! Wait, the Turbine Trail? No way! I see those birds every day!”

Yep, I do. And everyday I miss their glaringly obvious nest staring down at me from a tree branch that literally juts out onto the trail, almost as it were begging me to notice it. And, somehow, I had managed to ignore it for days. 

But now that I know where it is, my mission is to produce photographic evidence of its existence, with one of the parents on it. The same goes for the sandpiper nest. Today I spent a half-hour crouching in the bushes in front of the nest with a camera as the sandpiper stood about ten meters away, bobbing his tail nervously and refusing to return to its eggs. Ah well, I am going to keep a close watch on that yellow flower now.

The next bird on the nest/egg and chick/reproduction list is the Barn Swallow. Today we set up RFID gear on three Barn Swallow nests – nests NN, 300 and 206 – to continue Brendan's project of monitoring nest-visits by PIT-tagged swallows. I got a crash-course in the working of batteries, circuit-boards and antennas, and the importance of duct tape in holding all of the above up on the rafters around a swallow nest.

All three nests had chicks. Barn Swallow chicks are altricial – when they hatch they are blind, tiny, have almost no down and can barely thermoregulate their alien-like bodies. All they do, for the next two weeks or so, is sit in their cup-like nest and open their gaping yellow mouth wide as their parents shove food into it. Not a bad childhood, if you ask me. And they are cute in their own, – admittedly, non-gull-chick-like – way.

A Barn Swallow chick

I went back in the afternoon to check that the parents were OK with the RFID antennas around their nests, and hadn't abandoned their nests. Crouching in the cool underside of P-K lab, on a sketchy but mud-free blanket, I got some nice shots of one of the NN parents feeding its offspring. Looking forward to some good data from that nest tomorrow!

A Barn Swallow chick, poking its head out over the RFID antenna encircling its nest
Barn Swallow mealtime!
Parent on nest NN

Along with swallow nests under Dorm 3, there's also a Carolina Wren nest that we discovered a few days ago. I went to photograph it today. However, as I walked up to it, nothing happened, no parents flushed off, no calls emanated from within. Assuming the parents were off foraging, I reached a hand in to check for the eggs. 

Bad idea.

The incubating bird shot out like a angry bee, incidentally pushing one of its eggs out in the process. I backed off immediately but its loud, angry chatter followed me all the way down to the Commons. Lesson number one and only: BE ULTRA CAREFUL, ALWAYS.

The Carolina Wren nest
A ticked off Carolina Wren 
Ticked off Carolina Wren part 2

And we were, in the case of the next nest: the Black Guillemot nest. Kayla and I ensured that we approached the nest very slowly, saw the guillemot fly off, and spent no more than five minutes gushing over the cuteness of the chicks. They were still two balls of black fluff, but oh so much sassier! As I reached my hand under the rock for them, one of the chicks, that tiny little barely 70 grams of fluff, actually lunged at my fingers and tried to bite it off! Not that it met with much success. But it didn't give up and kept hissing, showing off its splendid red gape, as Kayla held it in her hand. 

I am cute and I know it: Black Guillemot chick
All of the sass
Red gape
So much smarter than gull chicks who just poop and run away, almost always in the direction of a Black-backed nest. I must admit, I am quite enamored of Black Guillemots and may or may not have spent many hours researching them, and people who study them, stumbling upon this excellent article about George Divoky's research, in the process.

And, last but not the least, dumb but no less adorable and amazing Herring Gull chicks. A nest under the porch of Kiggins hatched recently and yesterday I spent an hour recording the chicks peeping, feeding, tripping over each other and snoozing. Here's a sampling of some raw footage (caution: loud gulls in the background) -


I was going through my photographs from yesterday and happened upon one of this Yellow Warbler hatchling that I'd completely forgotten I'd seen yesterday at P-K lab. It was hopping around in the bushes, following its mom around and begging furiously for food.

Yellow Warbler fledgling

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