Blue-gray gnatcatchers returned to Pennsylvania in April and set up shop immediately. As one of the earliest nesting insectivores they began courtship and site selection right away.
Nest-building is part of blue-gray courtship. Both the male and female build the nest and they make a lot of noise and exaggerated bows when they begin. Meredith Lombard trained her camera on a nearby nest and filmed this pair’s efforts.
As you can see in the video, the nest is slightly expandable because it’s built on an elastic skeleton of spider webs and tentworm silk. In the early stages of construction I’ve seen gnatcatchers chatter near decayed fall webworm tents, grab the silk and anchor it to their chosen site. Later they poke the sides of the nest and stick in new bits of lichen and bark. They also drag the silk upward to make the nest cup.
All of this activity makes them easy to find and watch. Cowbirds watch them, too. On Sunday I saw a pair of gnatcatchers harassing a female cowbird. I hope they’re able to keep her away from their silky nest.
Here in North America, Franklin’s gulls are prairie birds. They spend the winter on the Pacific coast of South America, then migrate in Spring to the prairie marshes of Canada, Montana and the Dakotas where they look for shallow lakes to nest colonially. Every year they assess the water depth and vegetation density when they arrive. Droughts or floods force them to choose different marshes than they used the year before.
Like other marsh birds, Franklin’s gulls have learned that land-based nests are in danger of predation so they build floating nests out of bulrushes, cattails or phragmites. To keep the nests from drifting they anchor them to underwater reeds.
Unfortunately the submerged material decays and the nest sinks so the pair and their oldest chicks add more nest material every day to raise the surface.
If you have to work this hard to keep your nest from disappearing you eventually find time-saving shortcuts. Picking new bulrushes takes a long time, seven times longer than stealing your neighbor’s nesting material (someone actually timed this). Naturally a lot of stealing occurs.
Build and sink, build and sink, the floating nest requires daily upkeep and annoys the neighbors.
(photo by Dan Arndt who writes for two blogs in Canada: Bird Canada and Birds Calgary. Click on either blog link to see more of his work. You’ll also see that they still have snow in Calgary right now. Yow!)
If you’ve been worried about the survival of Eaglet#3 at the Pittsburgh Hays bald eagle nest, you can ease your fears a bit. Today the eaglets are 15, 13 and 10 days old.
On April 3 I described how competition among bald eagle siblings can cause the smallest eaglet to starve if food is scarce. The good news is that the older they get, the better their chances for survival.
So far so good. Eaglet #3 is active and growing and he’s getting fed. Food is abundant. He’s holding his own.
The food supply is one more indication that Pittsburgh is a great place to raise a family. But we knew that.
(snapshot from the Pittsburgh Hays eaglecam. Click on the image to watch the live stream)
Update: Hmmmm. At 9:25am the three eaglets were very hungry and there was nothing to eat yet. Eaglet#1 took a whack at Eaglet#3 who crouched with his face down to avoid attention. Hmmmm. We shall see…
Ruddy ducks are migrating through Pennsylvania right now but we’re not going to see the most interesting part of their lives because they reserve it for their breeding grounds in the prairie potholes of North America.
Unlike most ducks, ruddies don’t court while they’re away from home nor do they molt into breeding plumage before they begin migration. Instead they save their efforts for the big splash on the breeding grounds. At that point the males will be a deep ruddy color and their bills will be sky blue. They show off this beauty in an exaggerated bubble display.
Cornell’s Birds of North America describes the display like this (paraphrased): “The male holds his head, tail and two rows of head feathers (“horns”) erect. His inflates his neck and begins beating his bill slowly at first against his neck, forcing air out of the feathers. This causes bubbles to appear in the water. His beating intensifies toward the end of the display with a concomitant movement of his tail over his back and his head slightly forward over the water. And then he utters a low belching sound.”
Who knew that male ruddy ducks bubble and burp? I’m going to have to go West to see it.
Yesterday afternoon around 5:00pm the third and final egg hatched at the Pittsburgh Hays bald eagle nest. This happened during rush hour so a lot of us missed it … or did you stay late at work to watch?
Click on the photo above to watch the eaglet emerge from his egg.
An hour later all the eaglets are visible as Mom feeds the oldest chick.
Her actions reminded me that we will soon see a characteristic of bald eagle family life that’s quite different from peregrines’ – the tendency for the oldest eaglets to thrive and the youngest to die, sometimes killed by their siblings.
Bald eagle eggs hatch asynchronously so each new eaglet is two days smaller than the previous chick. Bald eagle parents feed the chick that asks for food, and since the oldest is bigger and more active he’s fed more than his siblings. Eagle chicks are aggressive toward their siblings and the parents don’t breakup the fights. The third chick often starves. Cornell’s Birds of North America Online describes it this way, referring to a study in Saskatchewan:
Hatching asynchrony and differential growth leads to differential mass in siblings, facilitating competition and fratricide. Sibling competition and mortality is greatest early in nestling period, when size differences are greatest. Third-hatched chicks in Saskatchewan nests received little food and usually starved.
This behavior is quite different from the peregrines’ lifestyle. Peregrine falcon eggs hatch almost simultaneously so all the chicks are close in age and size. The last chick may be smaller at first because he hatches two days later, but peregrine chicks are not aggressive and their parents make sure everyone eats at every feeding. Mother peregrines “chup” to their babies to encourage them to stand up and be fed. Click here see how effective (and cute) this is.
For now there are three eaglets at the Pittsburgh Hays eaglecam … but be prepared for the day when there might be only two.
Aerial photo taken after a logging operation along the Rappahannock River cut an eagle nest tree. This forest block supported a bald eagle nest for ten years prior to the harvest. Photo by Bryan Watts. (linked from The Center for Conservation Biology)
The Internet is captivated by the Hays bald eagle family nesting on a wooded hillside in Pittsburgh. Their nest is protected by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and worldwide media attention, but what happens to nests that aren’t so famous? Here’s the story of an unexpected consequence of removing bald eagles from the federal endangered list.
For 40 years bald eagles were completely protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and everyone understood not to harm them. By 2007 the birds made such a great recovery that they were removed from the federal ESA listing. Fortunately they are still protected by a law of their own, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act that protects eagles, their eggs and their nests.
The Center For Conservation Biology (CCB) in Williamsburg, Virginia monitors bald eagle nests in the Chesapeake Bay area where 75% of the nests are on private land. Each spring they fly over the watershed twice: once to count occupied nests, later to count chicks. Last month CCB reported what they’ve found after 6+ years without ESA protection: a real increase in the number of eagle nest trees cut down.
Bald eagles use same the nest for many years so when CCB flies over the area in early March, they look for known as well as new nests. Increasingly they find former nest trees are gone, cut down when an area is wiped out by a large logging operation like the one above.
Private landowners apparently don’t realize the Eagle Act protects the nest, so the well-publicized de-listing of the bald eagle has lead to an unintended consequence: disregard for the eagles’ habitat and nest trees. CCB points out that education of landowners is sorely needed.
There he is, the first eaglet of 2014 at the Pittsburgh Hays bald eagle nest. He’s hard to see because he matches the nest, hence the arrow. The two remaining eggs and his discarded eggshell (closest to Dad’s beak) stand out.
This tiny gray ball of fluff emerged on a warm and windy afternoon, March 28, under his mother’s gaze. As soon as he was dry she brooded him until Dad returned with food.
Click on the snapshot above to watch “Hays Parents Celebrate Hatch.” Dad has brought a fish to share. While Mom eats, Dad studies the eaglet. “Is he hungry?” Not yet, so Dad rearranges the nest. Mom leaves on a well-deserved break and Dad settles down to brood the chick.
Bald eagles brood their nestlings during cold and inclement weather until they’re about four weeks old. In the first week the brooding is almost constant because the nestlings can’t regulate their own body temperature. This also serves the dual purpose of incubating the unhatched eggs while keeping the eaglet(s) warm.
The first eaglet of the season hatched today in the Pittsburgh’s Hays Bald Eagle nest at approximately 2:30pm. In this YouTube video captured by PixController you can see the baby bird next to two eggs and his own eggshell. Then mom comes over to help.
Festivities tomorrow! March 29, 9:00am to noon, watch the nest at Hays — in person!
National Aviary Ornithologist Bob Mulvihill will be at the Hays Bald Eagle nest site tomorrow morning from 9 a.m. until noon with the spotting scope donated by Wild Birds Unlimited! Feel free to stop by for a really good look at the nest, maybe even catch a glimpse at what’s going on IN the nest!
Parking is available courtesy of Keystone Iron and Metal Co. in their employee parking lot at the end of Baldwin Road (see map), or use the address 4901 East Carson Street into your GPS!
The viewing site is a short distance from there: carefully cross the railroad tracks and turn left onto the trail. Bob will be about 200 feet down the trail with the spotting scope!
Click here for a map of how to get there.
Red-breasted mergansers already look a little crazy because of their wild head feathers. Here you see they’ve really gone nuts.
In this photo by Pat Gaines three male red-breasted mergansers are courting one female. The guys zip around and churn the water like jet skis, abruptly halt and point their bills skyward, dip their necks and crowd around her.
The lady doesn’t look like she wants this much attention. Pat wrote that she flew away pursued by all three males and concluded, “So this is what it must be like for a beautiful woman at a singles bar.”
Click on the photo for a closeup and here for a video of their courtship behavior.
(photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)
p.s. Notice how the feathers around the female’s eye form a dark circle. It looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks.