Replacement Male Bluebird

Celebrating Step-Father’s Day

I spent the better part of yesterday and this morning cursing the new male who’s been hovering around the nest for the last two days or so since the father of the current brood disappeared. I cursed him for having the gall to appear at all during such a challenging time (for both the female bluebird and me) but then to be trying to actively court her on top of it? It was too much! I despised him. He reminded me of lecherous bachelors badgering overworked single moms. I cursed him when I went to bed last night. I witnessed the two of them in a mid-air scuffle around 9:00 am this morning. And cursed him again. Just leave her alone!

Then at about 10:00 am I saw him go into the next box with what looked like a huge moth. My heart lifted but then I thought about it and figured he thought the female was in there and was trying to up his courtship game by plying her with fresh kill—a normal behavior between mating pairs. So I cursed him again. And again and I don’t know how many times. Believing not all the nestlings would survive, I cursed everything.

But he wasn’t wooing her.

He was, in fact, feeding the youngsters, and changing their diapers, so to speak, by removing they fecal sacks they excrete immediately after eating. (Something I noticed they hadn’t been doing while they were short on food.) I was amazed. But still too anxious about the whole situation to believe it was really happening. So I grabbed my phone and binocs and waited for him to come around again.

And he did.

Again with food. Again cleaning up the doo-doo. Since then he’s been regularly tending to the five little muppets and they, again having twice the food source, have visibly improved their physical state.

After a little research I learned that this sometimes happens—that a “floater” bird, one without a mate or territory, will under the right circumstances step in as a replacement when one of a pair is lost. The male particularly might assume a parenting role in the hope of establishing himself as a landholder in the neighborhood. Replacement females are more likely to kill the nestlings of a widowed male so she can establish herself as a mother. All of this is news to me. (And how downright cruel of those females!)

So, I am overjoyed and want to take it all back. All the cursing. I misjudged the new male, assuming he was the same rakish flirt as the last replacement male two summers ago. As fathers go, this guy’s the real deal. Happy Father’s Day weekend. Now.

Empty Bluebird Nest

The Deep Heartbreaking Blues.

While we were away these last two days I noticed whenever I peeked into the bluebird nest on my phone I was only seeing the mother feeding the nestlings. The second brood (from a new pair,) now about six days old, looked frail and shaky, hardly able to keep their heads lifted, but still cried out to be fed. I kept checking any time I had cell service and my heart began the slow plunge into my expected sorrow. I’d seen this scenario before. Something had happened to the father. The male was gone. And I can’t help but feel we’re on another path to heartbreak.

Two season ago, after (my all-time favorite) male suddenly vanished, the female wore herself out trying to feed her offspring alone and ultimately was unable to provide enough for all. Which is why I suspect that, like last time, one or more of these five sibling bluebirds will not survive and I fully understand there’s nothing I can do about it, except remove any once they pass in the hope of saving the living. Last time we encountered this I didn’t have a nest cam in place, it was swarming flies that tipped me off to the tragedy. Back then I had a clean spare empty nest (that I’d retrieved from another birdhouse that was never used) and used it replace the original one that was, by the time we intervened, too touched by death for my comfort. I replaced the nest with the spare and tucked the one surviving nestling into it with all the good juju we could send it. That baby survived and ultimately fledged; the others, we buried in a special spot, our hearts heavy.

And, just as in that previous season, I caught glimpse of a male yesterday evening which lifted my hopes that the father was okay, until I realized it was not the father at all, but a new male eager to occupy this nest and mate with this female. I’m trying to not resent him for horning in and for not offering help in keeping this brood alive as a stepparent. I’m trying to not resent him the same way I tried to not resent his predecessor, the now-missing male, after he, a month ago, battered the previous one-legged father and claimed this nest box as his. I’m reminded that, if karma exists, if offers no comfort. It never does.

So now, we wait. I have no idea for how long. But we all wait while we witness and honor the possibly truncated lives of these little beings. I can’t help but wonder, does the mother know? You would not know by her efforts that she thinks she could fail. Is she still in survival mode trying to save them all? Or will she choose who she feeds to increase the odds of any single survivor? My heart collapses under the weight of these questions and I have to push them out of my mind. Aware, once again, that nature answers to no one.

Abandoned Catbird Nest

Abandoned Catbird Nest

I’d been watching with interest as a Catbird pair built this nest in the Oriental Lilac just outside the workshop window. After having assembled a loose bramble of sticks in the palm of a few branches I happened to see when one of them brought a long strip of discarded (not by us) shipping tape, and used it as a building material.

Once the nest was inhabitable I watched and planned how I might video the feeding of hatchlings when they arrived. There was almost always a catbird sitting in the nest, keeping a low profile but watchful eye. I wound up hanging a piece of camouflage cloth on the window so I would not bother her during everyday activities—one of my workbenches stands beneath the window.

After about a week of her constant sitting I noticed the nest was left empty for a day. Then two. Three. And well, forever. I knew there had been eggs so of course I wondered what had happened. Did they hatch? But were abandoned? After more than a week I went and looked into the cup of the nest. It was empty except for a puddle of lilac petals that had dropped from the surrounding blossoms. No evidence of eggs or birds.

My best guess is one of the many gray or red squirrels in the area attacked the nest and removed the eggs. With nothing left in need of attention, the catbirds moved on. I think to build another nest in the same bush, but one deeper into the bush’s twiggy tangle and not easily spotted by predators, or photographers.

Female American Goldfinch - a spark of sunshine in the pines

Birds that Aren’t Blue

A few frames from recent walks not far from home. See, lots of birds get my attention not just those beginning with blue.

The first bluebird egg of the second brood

Another Family

The first egg of the season’s second brood (with new parents) was laid bright and early this morning, before I’d even had the chance to upload videos of the nest building! The first of which is shown below.

It feels new every time!

Bluebirds of Unhappiness

This last week has been heartbreaking in Bluebirdville. The good news is that all four hatchlings are alive and well at least as of this morning. But they’re orphans.

I’ve been trying to write about the loss of the father, only days after the loss of the mother, but words are being strangled by a strange sort of grief.

I will get some thoughts together eventually but for now, here’s a beautiful little Chipping Sparrow nest being assembled in a dead pine that we were planning to remove. I guess it can wait. 🙂

Bluebird laying egg video

But I Do.

Mother Blue appears to be gone, there’s been no sign of her since late Tuesday afternoon. My heart’s a little heavy. Okay, not a little.

I have a video clip of her in the empty nestbox, apparently surveying my post-fledge cleaning skills. In the clip she looks right at the camera and pecks it like she did during both the nest-building and incubation phases. Interesting how once the eggs hatched she never bothered with her own reflection in the camera again. Ever. Once the youngster appeared, she had that laser-focus of motherhood. Her entire existence revolved around feeding and protecting her young. I can only assume she met her demise, perhaps in the way that smaller birds do: in the jaws of predators like cats or larger birds of prey like hawks. Or was she accidentally struck by a car?

Nature doesn’t care.

The fledglings and the Dad returned to the area around our yard several times yesterday and I was able to snap a few photos of them flitting among the budding Maples. I am certain I saw three little ones and believe I saw all four. (With mortality odds at 25%, I’m reminded that seeing three of the four is good.)

But nature doesn’t care. Nature just natures.

I am the only thing in nature that comes anywhere close to loving these particular birds—the only one to laugh at their antics, smile at their charm, appreciate their being. The only one to feel acute grief in their loss. So this pinch in my heart may be the only tribute to Mother Blue. The rest of the universe carries on after such loss, unconcerned. I’ve learned a lot about death and release during my Bluebird ambassadorship, but I haven’t un-learned how to care. And wouldn’t want to.

Here’s my small monument to her existence. I know nature doesn’t care that I post this, but I do and memorials are, after all, for the benefit of the living.

Baby Bluebirds Leaving the Nest

One, Two, Three…gone in less than five. And then there’s Number Four. (videos)

Woohoo! My wish was granted! The four little feathered ones were still in the nest box when we returned from our week of Cape May birding. I peeked in on my phone, like every ten minutes—the whole trip home—with fingers crossed.

Once home, I didn’t bother to unload anything from the car that wasn’t a camera. Though I did say a long mutually affectionate hello to the cat while keeping my eye on the nest through the window. We’d been home less than thirty minutes when the hatchlings started teasing us about leaving—filling the box opening with their prehistoric faces, surveying the possibilities. In addition to the two video cameras it was my intention to shoot stills with the 150-600mm but I had to give up on that as the evening dimmed. It would be three hours before one of them finally summoned the courage to leap—leaving the only home they’d known, madly flapping inexperienced wings. Within about five minutes, one, two and three each enjoyed the gift of flight and met up with mom and dad in a nearby Black Walnut tree. It was about 7:45 pm.

Then, there was the Last One. There’s always a Last One. Last Ones can take hours to leave the nest box. In this case it took twenty-freakin’-one of them! Our previous record as eleven hours. As usual, it was the runt of the brood, likely the last to have been laid and hatch, but I guess when your four days younger than the first-born, another day’s grace isn’t too much to ask really. Besides, why jump out into the cold, windy night. To sleep huddled on a branch? It was, understandably, content where it was.

The next morning I first checked at 5:30am, and then regularly throughout the day. Being able to observe on my phone I had a pretty good idea of when the little stinker was simply not going—when it was lounging in the now roomy comfort of the nearly emptied nest and still had doting parents bringing in fresh food and taking out the messes.

With it’s perplexed little face poking out the box at 6:00 am, I set up the cameras to capture the event. But it still wasn’t time. And wouldn’t be for almost the whole day ahead. But because I was never sure if any fluttered leap to the window was its last, I too was jumping up and down—abandoning tasks and meals—to record hour after hour of false alarms. Finally around 4:15 Saturday afternoon, almost a full day after its siblings, reluctant number four vaulted out into its new universe and joined the family in a nearby Maple. Jack and I snapped a few portraits of all of them for the family album.

I’ve witnessed almost twenty broods fledge in the past six years. It never gets old. Hopefully we’ll get to watch all four of these little balls of feathers and sass grow and prosper—as we wait to welcome another batch next month?

Baby Bluebirds Readying to Fledge

Eager to Exit – Maybe Not.

After six glorious days of bird chasing we left Cape May mid-morning and the first thing I did was check the nest cam. Based on my math, the littles were likely to leave today. After seeing this, on my first peek into the nest, I was sure of it.

Today’s Bird – Summer Tanager

A nice addition to the Life List with this drop-dead red delight.