I spent part of Earth Day celebrating it the way I celebrate our planet every day – appreciating nature and trying to unravel its mysteries. This time of year, it’s mostly about how, when and where species reproduce.
A couple of weeks ago I was awakened by the sound of two amorous phoebes reuniting. Most likely the pair that nested here last year, it was too dark to make anything out other than two birds fluttering around above my compost heap in the yard. They were calling insistently to each other, and I figured they were getting busy starting their family. By the time I got up, the first layer of a nest had appeared on the kitchen-fan vent hood, where the phoebes had their first clutch of eggs last year.
The nest consists mostly of grass and moss, lined with fine grass and hair, neatly stuck together and to the vent hood with mud. Within a few days, it was done and the female started spending her nights there. I started checking the nest regularly. First there were two eggs, then ultimately five.
I rarely stumble across a nest in the wild but have learned to watch birds’ behavior to find them. Around the same time the phoebes were building their nest, I saw a female northern cardinal wrestling with a large leaf. She ultimately gave up and settled on a long piece of dried grass. I watched to see where she took it – about 10 feet into the forest and five feet up in a bush covered with honeysuckle.
A couple of days later, when the cardinals weren’t around, I checked out the location and found the nest. It was loosely constructed of grass, dead leaves, bark, twigs and other forest debris, which camouflaged it well. The nest lining was similar to the phoebes’. When I do find a nest that I can’t identify and no parents are nearby, I refer to Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests,” which includes photos of nests with eggs in them along with a description of the nest’s construction.
No eggs were in the cardinal’s nest on the first check or a few days later. The same day I found five eggs in the phoebes’ nest, I started through the forest tangle to check the cardinals’ nest again. As I got close, I could see a red-feathered tail poking out from the nest, so I waited until the next day and found three eggs in the nest.
Other birds are also nesting nearby, judging by the many songs I hear, particularly at dawn. I regularly hear an eastern towhee commanding “drink your tea-a-a-a-a” – or sometimes just “your tea-a-a-a-a, your tea-a-a-a-a” – in the forest in back of the house. Since I find it hard to translate bird-song transcription in field guides or spot birds in a forest, I appreciate any bird’s offering such a memorable mnemonic.
To help sort out bird sounds, I generally carry a small digital audio recorder with me so I can record them and check my audio references back home later. However, my new Sibley bird app on my phone now lets me check sounds in the field, and offers several recordings of most species’ songs and calls, which helps discern variations. It also has details about the bird’s appearance, range and preferred habitat, to help further nail down the identification.
One nest I’d really like to find is the tiny one of the hummingbird. Thanks to Phoebe Allens’ webcam (phoebeallens.com), I have enjoyed watching one industrious California female, an Allen’s hummingbird, pumping out babies for the last few years. I checked it today, and a new brood had just hatched out and, while I was watching, the mom arrived to feed and warm up her little guys.
I put my hummingbird feeder out last week, and a male ruby-throated showed up the next day, followed by another one. The males typically precede the females in the flight north. To see an animated map of the migration, go to learner.org and search on “ruby-throated.” Ruby-throated hummingbirds pair up briefly to mate, with males taking more than one partner. The females may do the same but, in any case, they raise the young alone.
Birds aren’t the only ones conspicuously reproducing. The ponds at the bottom of the mountain are loaded with amphibian eggs, and peepers and pickerel frogs are calling most nights. Although they’ll likely be consumed by all the game fish there, judging by the disappearance of the eggs and lack of tadpoles last year. The fishless upper pond is even more packed with eggs, and they have a better chance of survival. The egg clusters likely belong to pickerel frogs and red-spotted newts. Peepers lay just an egg or two at a time under vegetation in shallow pools. (Check virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com for frog calls and descriptions.)