The Urge to Nest, Martins on the Way

gd_2_1_09cagoA Canada Goose was observed moving nesting material around on the small island in front of the Wetlands Overlook. The bird was apparently just going through the motions spurred on by the warm weather. The goose momentarily shuffled a few pieces of grass and leaves about on the island, then swam off to feed.

Thinking that I was looking at an Osprey (unusual for this time of year), it was not a disappointment when the raptor that I saw gliding in from the southwest turned out to be a Bald Eagle (sub-adult). It was February 4th, a cold and blustery day, and the bird was uncharacteristically struggling with the wind as it approached the Wetlands, its wings crooked, much like a gliding Osprey. The eagle circled the Wetlands a few times before moving off to the northeast. I was at the Ornithopter at the time, but I suspect that the ducks in the Wetlands had an eye on the sky as well. A duck would make a nice meal for an eagle.

The eagle seemed somewhat smaller than the eagles that I’m used to seeing in this area. Could this have been an eagle from the Florida population of Bald Eagles? Florida Bald Eagles are smaller overall than northern Bald Eagles. There is a gradual increase in size of the individual birds that make up a breeding population as you move north, Florida and the Gulf States having the smallest eagles, Alaska the largest. And, it’s a well-known fact that southern Bald Eagles move north after the nesting season (post-nesting dispersal). They may travel as far as Canada, the young eagles reaching the southern shores of the Great Lakes in late May or June. There, they spend the summer and return south the following fall.

Bald Eagles begin nesting as early as October (more typically, November) in Florida, so it’s not beyond reason that the bird that flew over the Museum on February 4th was from that breeding population. The bird was in its first sub-adult plumage, which means that it could have hatched earlier this winter. However, according to research done on these eagles, fledgling Bald Eagles in Florida are reported to remain in the vicinity of their nests until late March, dispersing from April to July. I can’t say for sure where this bird came from or why it appeared smaller than it should have. Perhaps it was just a product of the heavy winds aloft at the time that made it appear a bit smaller than usual (remember, it was mistaken for an Osprey when first spotted). Something to think about.

A Cooper’s Hawk was seen on the 4th, 7th and 14th of February. It was observed flying in courtship-display mode on the 7th, with slow, stiff, exaggerated wing beats. On the 14th of the month, two Cooper’s Hawks were seen flying into the pines north of the Wetlands and were heard calling back and forth to each other. Hopefully, these once rare hawks will again nest at the Museum as they did last year (see Cooper’s Hawk, Explore the Wild Journal, June 16-30, 2008).

The male Red-bellied Woodpecker that had been excavating a hole in a Loblolly Pine near the entrance to the Lemur House (see Red-bellied Woodpecker, Explore the Wild Journal, January 1-15, 2009) has been actively advertising the cavity’s availability as a nest hole to any female within listening distance. The male has been very vocal throughout the period, and at least one female was seen investigating the offering. The male’s activity seems to be most strenuous early in the day.

An unseen woodpecker was briefly heard drumming high above the path near the Black Bear Exhibit. The drumming will no doubt increase as the season progresses toward Spring.

Purple Martins are large, dark swallows that spend the winter in Brazil and migrate to North America to breed. They are almost totally dependent on humans for nesting sites. Hollowed-out gourds and plastic, metal, or wood bird houses erected specifically for the purpose of attracting these colonial nesting, insect-eating birds are pretty much the only places that these birds now nest, although I’ve heard of a few locations on the coastal plain where they have used natural nest sites. Historically, they’ve nested in natural tree cavities, which are not as plentiful as they once were. In the bird world, the competition is stiff for nest holes.

I’ve only seen Purple Martins at the Museum once, in April of last year. So why bring up the subject of Purple Martins if they are most likely NOT going to be part of the local scene? Well, even though you may only get a glimpse of a Purple Martin here at the Museum as it passes by on its way to somewhere else, Purple Martins are still fascinating birds. And, the birds from our general area (North Carolina) that migrated south to Brazil last fall are on their way back to our area NOW.

A web site keeps track of migrating Purple Martins as they move north each year. There’s a vast subculture of martin lovers out there who are anxiously awaiting their favorite bird’s return from its southern retreat. People living along the martin’s migration route report their sightings to the above web site as the birds are spotted on their northward journeys. The data are graphically displayed on a map indicating where the birds were at the time of the report. Check it out. At the time of this posting, martins had already been spotted in Trinity, Fayetteville, and Maxton, NC.

gd_2_1_09ettiThe list of birds heard singing on the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop during this period were Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, House Finch, and Eastern Towhee (see also, Northern Cardinal and Song Sparrow, Explore the Wild Journal, January 16-31, 2009).

The Eastern Phoebe (or another one like it) that had nested under the boardwalk last spring was seen flying out from under the boardwalk on February 7th, perching on one of the willows directly across from the boardwalk. Since then I’ve seen two phoebes flying in and out from under the boardwalk. The willows out in front of the boardwalk are a good place to look for these hardy flycatchers as they perch prior to and following their visits to the potential nest site. You should be able to hear them calling “phoebe! phoebe!” (fee’-be, fee’-be) while you stroll around the Wetlands, they’ve been very persistent in their vocalizations lately. Keep your eyes and ears open as you walk by on your way to see the bears, wolves, and lemurs.

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