Bird Nests of May – Part I
“The survival of its species depends on how well it can protect and keep warm a ridiculous, round, rolly, fragile thing, containing its future offspring.” Joan Dunning, Secrets of the Nest: The Family Life of North American Birds
In my office I have a photograph of two bald eagles in a nest with two young hatchlings. The eagles built it about 15 years ago in a tall sycamore tree adjacent to the Quinebaug River. The nest is at least six feet in diameter and constructed with sticks laid out and heaped onto horizontal branches snug against the trunk of the tree.
Hanging from my bookcase I have a tiny nest built by a red-eyed vireo. It is perfectly round, barely two-inches wide at the opening and two-inches deep. Into a fork of a twig, it has been carefully woven together with thin strands of reddish bark stripped from wild grape vines, bits of grass and thin roots.
The juxtaposition between our region’s largest nest and one so small has me thinking about the nestbuilding efforts of our avian neighbors. A few years ago, I purchased an informative and delightful book, “Secrets of the Nest: The Family Life of North American Birds,” by Joan Dunning. The book described in exceptional detail the nests and breeding habits of a variety of bird species and includes beautiful illustrations by the author.
The information gleaned from Dunning’s book and my own observations inspired me to write this as the first of a two-part series of columns about our local birds’ nests.
Dunning uses simple classifications of nest types, describing each type in detail for 34 bird species. Her classifications include ground nests (eggs laid right on the bare ground or in a slight depression), platform nests (piles of sticks laid and heaped together in trees or on ledges), burrow nests (nesting holes dug into the earth), cavity nests (nests built in holes in trees), cup nests (woven nests of vegetative material attached to trees or bushes), pensile nests (suspended nests hanging from above like hammocks woven into the forks of twigs), pendulous nests (hanging pouches woven and suspended from thin twigs at the ends of branches), and no nests (parasitic birds that don’t build nests, but instead lay their eggs in the nests of other species). Today’s column focuses on ground nests, platform nests and burrow nests.
This time of year, I often see killdeer foraging along the sandy banks of rivers, lakes and ponds. They’ll scurry along the shore, and if I get too close, they may fly off a short distance. But if the killdeer makes a distracting broken-wing display, then I know a nest is nearby. The ground nest of the killdeer is almost impossible to see, though it may be right at your feet. The nest will hold four dark and speckled eggs perfectly camouflaged to blend in with rocks and sand. Both adults will help incubate the eggs for about 25 days.
Turkey, pheasants and bobolinks are other examples of ground nesting birds who make their homes here in the National Heritage Corridor.
In The Last Green Valley, we know of at least 14 active bald eagle nests. These platform nests are massive in size and weight, due in part to the eagles’ continued maintenance and additions to the nest they will use year-after-year. Inside the nest is a smaller bowl of twigs lined with soft grass and moss where one to three white eggs are laid in late winter. It takes about 35 days before the chicks appear and at this writing many of our volunteer nest monitors are reporting hatchings.
Other platform nests in our region include osprey, frequently seen built high on top of electric power line poles or even on top of cell towers. Less visible and usually in more remote areas are the platform nests of the great blue heron. Heron “rookeries” are several nests together built in tall dead trees within a flooded area (beaver pond) or marsh. The flooded area creates a natural barrier and protection from tree-climbing predators. While typically solitary in their hunting habits, great blue heron prefer the company and safety in numbers of other herons while nesting and raising young. The nest itself is a loose collection of sticks lined with finer materials. Between three to six blue-green colored eggs are laid with incubation by both adults for approximately 28 days.
It seems incongruous that flying birds would burrow underground to build their nest, instead of taking to trees. One of our more interesting fishing birds has evolved to build its nest very close to its food source.
The belted kingfisher is a joy to watch as it dives headfirst into a lake, pond, stream or river to retrieve small fish. I have heard its rattling call many times when paddling our rivers, usually as it zooms past me heading downstream. It stops on a riverbank tree, eyeing me carefully until the current brings my canoe closer to its perch, and then flies further downstream, as if leading me down river. One more stop at a tree and it flies at top speed in a straight line back upriver – happy it has successfully escorted me away from its nest.
Along a sharp curve in the river, where years and force of moving water have cut a steep bank into the hillside soil, sand and gravel, the kingfisher has burrowed a slightly inclined tunnel of four feet in length, ending at a round cavity where five to seven white eggs are laid. Both male and female will incubate the eggs for 23-24 days. Their territory is a linear stretch of river of about 1,000 yards.
Next week we’ll learn about the cavity nests, cup shaped nests, pensile nests, pendulous nests, and the parasitic birds who don’t build nests.
Our region’s birds are a joy to observe, and learning their habits is a life-long pursuit. Nesting season is here, evidenced by the dawn chorus now greeting us each morning. I hope you’ll join me in the fields and forests. Let us tune our ears to the songs of the season and focus our eyes on the hidden places, where warm nests hold the eager promise of eggs.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at860-774-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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