Wednesday, June 8, 2011

It's Breeding Season!

It’s a good thing I spent a lot of time at Lake Frank last week, since this week I’ve been laid low by a nasty cold and can barely scrounge enough energy to weed my garden, let alone go hiking.  Spring migration is almost over around here, so I’m not seeing as many transient warblers or other pass-through migrants. But believe me, there is more than enough breeding activity to make up for it. Insects, birds, even reptiles are all busy finding mates, building nests and raising babies.  Here’s just a little of what I found:  
The trail I like at Lake Frank follows the top of a big embankment that’s a good spot for watching barn swallows, and on either side heads downhill into the forest.  There’s a big field on the far side of the embankment too, and that’s where I spotted an out-of-place Red-bellied Turtle.
Once I got a bit closer, I saw she had dug a shallow ditch and was busy laying eggs. She seemed calm and contemplative most of the time, surely concentrating on the process. Just before she actually laid an egg she elongated her neck and braced herself with her forelegs. The egg glistened wetly as it slid into the ditch, and was about the size and color of a ping-pong ball. Although I only waited around to see a single egg laid, I’ve read that Red-bellieds usually lay somewhere between eight and twenty eggs at a time.
Now, most of the turtle nests that I’ve seen before have been ransacked by local raccoons within about 24 hours. So the next day I came back to check on the nest site. Sure enough, it was destroyed.  One emptied shell was lying on the ground next to the re-excavated ditch, and a pile of fresh, seed-filled raccoon scat sat nearby like a calling card.  
It’s disappointing—I had kind of hoped to see the babies when they hatched—but not unexpected.  I console myself that the raccoon probably has babies of her own to feed too. I know the raccoons in my neighborhood have rapidly growing babies; a couple weeks ago they were about squirrel size. I saw them when the mother moved the three excessively cute kits from the den in my yard to somewhere in a neighbor’s yard.
Not far from the turtle field I also spotted a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest. I would never have seen the nest had the birds not been so noisy and attracted my attention in the first place. The nest is hidden from above by leaves, from below it looks like part of the tree branch since it’s made of lichens.  One bird was sitting on the nest when I initially spotted them, the other vocalizing and fluttering around.  They both took off long before I got my camera focused, of course. When I came back the next day, even though I knew the nest was there it still took me a while to find it again.  Were I a hungry predator I surely would not know there might be tasty eggs or chicks up there!
I really like Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, tiny active birds with a distinct wheezy call.  They’re kind of a signal of spring for me, one of the migrants whose arrival each year really marks the season.  Seeing their nest is new for me, though. I’ll keep checking on it over the next month or two. Maybe I’ll even get a glimpse of the babies once they hatch.
After several hours of hiking and lots more photos, my camera batteries were flagging (and I’d left my backup batteries at home, whoops).  I still had lots of energy though. As I neared a dead tree that was pocked with woodpecker holes, I heard a weird sound overhead, like a file rasping against wood.  I figured it was just a squirrel gnawing on a tough nut, but checked it out anyway. I looked up and saw a bird’s head peeking out of a hole in the dead tree about fifteen feet directly over my head —a young male Pileated Woodpecker!  That explained the fresh wood chips all over the ground; I’ve noticed that pileateds commonly throw big wood chips all over the place, whether they’re making a nesting cavity or just looking for food. It was the chick making that raspy sound, probably begging for food in hopes one of his parents was in earshot. Greedy little thing!
I walked around the tree to see if I could get a better view (no) and when I got back to my original spot I had another surprise: the first chick’s sister was looking around now too!
The birds are still fuzzy, although their adult feathers are mostly grown in.  I would guess they’re within a week or two of fledging. I had a great time watching them, and next day I came back with fresh batteries. (The male chick's picture above is actually from the second day.) This time I saw one of the parents nearby too.  The parent wouldn’t come much closer than about ten feet to the nesting tree while I was there though, so I never could get a decent view or photo of him/her.  Nor could I find any spots where I was far enough away for the parent’s comfort and still have any view of the nest cavity.  They really picked a good spot for privacy! Not fans of the paparazzi, I suppose.  Still, I had a really good time watching the babies.  I’m a sucker for a fuzzy face, even if that face ends in a big sharp beak!

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