Sunflowers and Nodding Wild Onion Greet My Return!

Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onions blooming on Naked Mountain

I returned to Naked Mountain after a three week absence spent visiting family and friends in New England.  What a welcome I received!  The small barren that is just a short walk from my house up a foot-tramped path is ablaze with masses of blooming Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onion (Alluim cernuum). What a show!  Tucked in along the edges of the rock were a few dozen Fameflowers (Phemeranthus teretifolius).  They were mostly already in fruit, but a few had pink buds that will open only on a sunny afternoon, and only for a few hours for exactly one day —  that’s it until next year.  Also blooming were a dozen or so Orange-grass, or Pineweed plants (Hypericum genitanoides).

Close up of Nodding Wild Onion Plants (Allium cernuum).

This little barren is such a pleasure – just steps away and a continuing display of gorgeous Virginia native plants.  The trees you see in the background are mixed Chestnut Oak (Quercus Montana) and (I think) Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra).  The small tree that is growing right out of the rock is a Persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) and it is covered with fruit. Also plentiful, but hard to see in this photo are Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus).  They put on quite a display in May, but I will wait until then to show this to you. The grasses include Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata) and other species that I have not yet identified.  I also know nothing yet about the various mosses and lichens that are plentiful in this barren – more fun discovery work!

I checked on the bluebird box and, as expected, it was empty:  The nestlings had fledged.  I took the box down and cleaned it out, disposing of the nest.  Under the nest I found hundred of tiny ants that probably made life pretty unpleasant for the little baby birds. That sort of insect infestation is a common occurrence in nest boxes.  I scrubbed the bottom and sides of the box with a wire brush.  Then I scrubbed it with a sponge dipped in mild bleach solution to disinfect.  I let the box dry thoroughly in the sunshine and then remounted the box – all ready for another brood.

Last evening, while I was dining on my deck as the sun set, a little flock of bluebirds flew over my head. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the little family that had its beginnings a few steps away in the nest box in the small barren where the sunflowers and nodding wild onion are now blooming….

 

Baby Bluebirds Have Hatched!

Five eggs found in Naked Mountain Bluebird nest box on May 31st.

Since the May 29th post updating you on the Naked Mountain bluebird box alot has happened. When I took the May 28th photo, only two eggs were in the nest. On May 31st, three days later, I found a total of five eggs in the nest. I didn’t check the box again until June 20th, three weeks later.  This is what I found:

Baby bluebirds found in nest box on June 20th.

Do you count four baby bluebirds, or five?

Then today, June 27th I checked again.  Here they are:

How many do you think there are?  While I was taking the photo, one of the parents perched in a nearby tree was chip-calling quietly, but persistently.  Earlier in the day, while crouched in my spying spot about twenty feet away from the nest box, I could hear the babies crying for attention when a parent arrived with an insect in its beak. But when I opened the lid on top of the box to take the photo, they were still and quiet.  I think the parent’s warning chip-calls were well understood and heeded!

I will not return to Naked Mountain to check on the box until July 23rd.  According to my Bird Behavior guide by Donald and Lillian Stokes, if everything goes ok, the nestlings will be gone.  They will have fledged.  This is what my book says about this phase:

“On their first flight, the nestlings are often capable of flying seventy-five to a hundred yards, often landing in the lower branches of trees and then working their way up to the higher branches. They usually start to give the Tur-a-wee call as soon as they leave the nest and this may help the parents locate them during food trips. Both parents will usually continue to feed the young for three to four weeks or more. However, if the female starts in on another brood, the male will do all the feeding of the fledglings.”

Stay tuned.

Bluebird Update: Survival Challenge Ends Well

It is time to give you an update on the progress of the Naked Mountain Bluebird nest box.  The new box was erected and discussed in the February 18th post, “Bluebirds Need Your Help.” On May 1st I took a picture of the beautiful nest and five very blue eggs that I found in

Naked Mountain bluebird nest with eggs. Picture taken May 1st by author.

the box and published it in the post, “The Birds Have Arrived on Naked Mountain!” I had planned to screw a protective cage onto the front of the nest box the day I had my car wreck on Naked Mountain – see the May 11 post.  I was waiting to do this until I knew the eggs would be about to hatch so that the mother bluebird would be less likely to abandon her eggs due to the new, possibly frightening, addition to the nest box entrance.  The cage has bent-back prongs on the ends to discourage snakes from trying to enter the box; they will avoid the prongs to prevent injury.  But, the tow truck arrived more quickly than expected to haul my wrecked vehicle off the mountain. And, I was scheduled to be in New York City for five days very shortly, so I drove to Northern Virginia in a rented sedan and did not get back to Naked Mountain, in my nicely repaired all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback, until May 23rd.

Author looking into the bluebird nest box on May 23rd. Photo by David Hopwood.

 

 

The day I got back, I hurried up to the small barren where the nest box is and looked inside.

 

 

 

 

 

This is what I found:

As you can see, the nest is not disturbed at all as it would be if a raccoon had predated the nest, and there are no feathers, or fluff from nestlings and just some fecal droppings on side of the box that was likely left by adult birds.  It has all the markings of a stealthy snake attack on the eggs with all of them consumed.  The big concern I had was whether the mother bluebird was consumed as well, trapped while sitting on her eggs.  Yikes!

I was very sad about this.  But in the hope that the mother survived and would just try again, I left the nest in place and screwed the protective cage on tight. Then, a few days later, on May 28,  I checked the nest box again.  This is what I found:

Eggs found on May 28th.

 

Hurray!! The drive for survival within these beautiful, seemingly fragile, little birds is really impressive! I’ll keep you posted on the progress of this nest box throughout the season

 

In the meantime, here are some wildflowers in bloom now on Naked Mountain.

Tradescantia virginiana blooming on Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

 

Can anyone identify the species of Penstemon in this photo?

Penstemon ?subspecies, blooming on Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

I am guessing either canescens or hirsutus, but the leaf matches the Flora of Virginia’s description for hirsutus perfectly, while the flower matches the description for canescens.  Can you help?  If you click on the photo, the enlargement allows you to see all the pubescence.

Bluebirds Need Your Help!

It’s time to put up the bluebird nesting box. It’s still winter, mid-February, but the bluebirds will begin checking out housing in a few weeks.

Bluebirds are one of my favorite bird species. They are about seven inches in length and the males have bright, truly blue heads, backs and wings, an orange-red throat and breast and white belly.  The females have a grayish head, back and wings, but edged with blue. They are members of the thrush family, the finest singers in the woods. Their song is a soft, melodious warble that finishes on a slightly lower pitch and with just a hint of sadness to the tone. I love the sight and song of bluebirds so much that I can pick out just a fragment of a song, or a call note, a quarter mile away.

Bluebird Photo from Wikipedia

There are three kinds of bluebirds in North America – the Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird and the Eastern Bluebird which inhabits areas East of the Rocky Mountains. Once plentiful,  North American Bluebirds were in decline through much of the 20th century and their numbers  had dropped by an estimated 70 percent by 1970. The reason was largely due to the proliferation  of nonnative bird species that were cavity nesters like bluebirds. These species, the European Starling and English House Sparrow, outcompeted bluebirds for nesting sites by aggressively attacking them, driving them off their nests, destroying eggs, killing nestlings and sometimes even the adults.  

To reverse the decline of bluebirds, in 1978, Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, founded the North American Bluebird Society to promote the preservation of bluebirds. The main focus of Dr. Zeleny’s efforts was the provision of nestboxes and managing of bluebird nestbox trails. He designed a nestbox that had a small enough entrance hole to keep the larger starlings out, and a hinge on the top so the box can be viewed. The English House Sparrows can still get in the boxes, but Dr. Zeleny stressed monitoring of the boxes and removal of English House Sparrow nests and eggs. The combination of educating the public about the needs of bluebirds, providing them with nestboxes and information for monitoring them has had positive results. In 2005, the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory reported sitings, once rare, of bluebirds all across the southern United States as part of its Backyard Bird Count conducted by thousands of citizen scientists. You can read more about providing and monitoring bluebird nesting boxes here.

Yesterday, I erected a bluebird nesting box on a six foot smooth, round metal pole, attached a baffle designed to keep raccoons from reaching up and destroying eggs or nestlings, and will later affix a metal cage with sharp wire points to keep out snakes. I tried it out on the box, but will screw it in place only after the box is being used by a bluebird, or

Author shows snake guard for bluebird nesing box

other native cavity nesting bird. The birds may be scared away by the cage, but once eggs are laid and nestlings hatch, they will not abandon the box.

I placed the pole and nestbox on the edge of a natural opening in the woods near the summit of Naked Mountain. It is not far from my house and deck, so I can spy on activity, using binoculars, from a distance. I will also monitor weekly to ensure English House Sparrows do not use the box. The spot I picked is exactly the spot bluebirds themselves chose twenty years ago. There was a hollow tree on the edge of the clearing with woodpecker holes on its south-facing side, the preferred direction. The clearing provides the birds with an open area to locate and pounce on crawling bugs. It also provides an intermittent drinking and bathing water source via a bowel effect in the rock formation. A shallow puddle forms there and stays for a few days after a rain shower. I have secretly spied on many kinds of birds, including bluebirds, bathing in the rock puddle. It is totally fun to watch this!  I also provide additional water in a birdbath near the house for those hot, dry weeks in July. 

Author puts up bluebird nesting box on Naked Mountain

The bluebirds fledged two broods for two consecutive summers in that old hollow tree. Then it blew down in a storm. That’s when I started putting up the nestboxes. But two summers ago, my resident pesky bear that I have nicknamed Chobani because he seems to prefer Greek yogurt, predated the nestbox. You can read more about Chobani in the January 28th post on “How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain.” I didn’t put a nestbox up last spring, but Chobani didn’t bother me all last summer, so I am going to try again.

We’ll see what happens this spring. Stay tuned!