Monday, April 15, 2013

The small signs of spring

Tundra Swans against a WNY backdrop
Spring can have as many personalities as a good cast of actors, and we never do know how it will approach. Sometimes it is slow, quiet, and gradual. Sometimes winter seems to endure for ages. Sometimes spring explodes around us violently. Here in Western NY, the year is gradually waking up of spring, as the winter is not ready to sleep just yet.

Not long ago I received word that my mother's friend has a nearly annual stopover on her property of Trundra (Whistling) Swans. We were invited to visit and see them, and so took a drive down into the river valley and into the fertile floodplains. A cornfield with some wet pooling areas had attracted the swans... along with a parade of Canada Geese, Mallards, Wood Ducks, and even a single pair of Northern Pintails.

A close look will reveal Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Mallards, and Wood Ducks.

The swans were stopping over on their spring migration. It is likely that they overwintered in the south, perhaps in the Carolinas, and were taking a break before continuing northward, to their eventual destination of the arctic or subarctic tundras... where they will nest. It was a real treat to see these beautiful native swans in the wild, as they are not particularly a common sight where I live.

Interesting contrasts: White swan, black crows
It is curious to see their strong preference for the cut corn fields over any other local habitat. Some reading on this species offers that they seem to be growing increasingly depending on human agriculture. A shy bird, they are driven more and more from natural waterways where they would naturally forage, by development and pollution.

When I observed these birds it was clear that they didn't want anything to do with me at all. I was fortunate to have brought a long lens with me and it was the only thing that allowed me to capture images of them at all. To the naked eye they were actually amazingly hard to see; white birds on white snow, with a bright atmospheric glare. My eyes watered against the intense light as I'm photosensitive, but I watched them from afar as long as I was able.

One pair of birds was foraging very nearby when we first arrived, much to the landowner's delight. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicles they'd had quite enough though, and removed themselves to the interior of the field, which was littered by far more bold Canada Geese.

The swans were shy and marched away... The geese couldn't be bothered.

On the same outing, I scouted the local crick (creek, for those that are not familiar with our native tongue..) and encountered a pair of Common Mergansers. After a few moments, it was determined that my presence was offensive, and they flew off. Because they are heavy-bodied diving ducks, they cannot leap into the air like mallards can. They must have a "runway" and takeoff is not graceful at all.

A Common Merganser Drake.. taking off... eventually.

Several days later, while surveying a portion of our land, we witnessed several bonding displays between a
There's always a branch in the way when I photo these guys.
pair of Red-Shouldered hawks. My husband and I call these "Screaming Hawks", as they are very vocal, and we joke that they need to scream in order to stay aloft. They use scream-powered engines. I may have mentioned this in a prior post about blue jays... I digress. The pair hunted throughout the afternoon, and fed one another prey items. Then the (male, I suspect) preformed a breathtaking and entirely over the top aerial display, full of steep diving and crazy spiraling. The second hawk watched on from a considerable altitude. We have always had Red-Shouldered Hawks every year but this was the first that I saw the displays.

Interestingly, this species is the one hawk that we have not observed taking any wild birds as prey, nor have they ever 'stalked' our chickens. All other local hawk species that we've had on our property have been witnessed to do one or the other... both, in the case of a Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I think that the Red-shouldered hawks are capable, and truly much more happens in nature than we ever see with our eyes, but they do seem to prefer rodents. The wild birds do not react strongly to their presence, either.

Of great excitement are our most local arrivals... the bluebirds. Bluebirds are a bit of a family joke. They are the state bird of NY, however my mom has never seen one. I, an active birder, never saw one until I was 25.
They seem to be blue ghosts of our open areas and always elude my family. I have had bluebird houses put up since the moment we moved into this house, and every year so far I have caught glimpses of these tiny blue gems, and distant warbles of the male's sweet song. Last year, to my delight, they chose a box and began nesting, but disappeared soon thereafter. I mourned their nesting failure as if it was my own; what had I done wrong? The box placement is not ideal, as my yard is narrow and long and by necessity the boxes are somewhat near the woodline.

A Female Eastern Bluebird arrives.
Soon, house wrens moved into one box, then another. I shrugged, and decided that I was happy to have a native species using the box, if the bluebirds were not. Little did I know at the time but the wrens had driven them right out, and I later found a little bluebird egg deep in the weeds under one box, with a little hole stabbed in it. By a wren's beak. Still, what was done was done, and I could not legally evict the wrens as they had already created an active nest. As the spring went on and turned into summer, I checked the boxes. One had wrens, wrens, wrens. The other had.. a weird nest. It didn't look much like a nest, but something had made it. It was really just an awkward pile of sticks, it seemed. Curious, I started to research... and yep. It was a wren "dummy nest". A house wren will often decide that it does not want to compete with other birds for nesting habitat (despite my boxes being >100 feet apart) and will fill any other nest sites it can find with twigs so that no one else may use it. What a jerk move! Surely, it makes sense from a survival standpoint, but my yard is rich with insects and I knew that it would support many bird families. Fortunately, these are not real nests, and can be removed legally. I did so, and the wrens re-built them daily. What a pain!

This year, I was ready... I hoped. I did my research and learned about wren guards. These are essentially baffles that make a nesting site less appealing to the wren. Wrens are less likely to approach a nesting hole from the side, and have a harder time getting their big stupid twigs in there that they like to use. Sometimes bluebirds don't like it either, though, and the recommendations I read suggested that one should apply a wren guard only after a bluebird has started to lay eggs and is therefore committed to the nest site. Well... I couldn't wait. My wrens are due back any time now and they know these boxes, and they love these boxes. I had to take a risk and put the wren guards up before the bluebirds started nesting. I was thinking I might write "NO WRENS" on the cardboard.. but I felt like perhaps I would just be tempting fate to do so. I don't think wrens read. Or care.

Oh goodness, please stay Mr. Bluebird!
So, you might imagine my surprise and delight to capture this sight the other day... a pair of bluebirds scoping out a possible house, and even going inside to check! The wren guard did not put them off of the box entirely. Oh, horray! I don't know if they will nest there yet, or not. I don't even know if the guard will stop the wrens (sometimes they do not). But it is the best I can to do help, for now. Go, bluebirds, go!

I nearly screamed when I saw her go inside with no problems.

And so spring creeps, sneaks, quietly enters... even while winter keeps whispering down the back of my neck with a cold zephyr.


  1. Thanks for the tip on the wren guard Jen, I will try it out. Hope you are well.
    Natalie (Blackdesertwind)

  2. Wow, your bluebird looks fantastic! What a beautiful bird, I wish we would have such birds in our area as well <3 And wow, tundra swans and canada geese!
    We had a long cold period, too but after winter summer is here (today I got my first sunburn o.O it was so hot!). The weather is strange in Switzerland, but our common mute swans are nesting, YAY! I see forward to see a lot of baby water fowl soon. I hope you will have some, too!