Bluebirds in Winter

We have a family of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) that is staying with us through the winter. The blues have been expanding their range for the last 10 years or so, and it’s not really unusual to see them in New England during the winter.

Two springs ago, mister gardener made a bluebird house and installed it along the edge of our garden. It wasn’t long before a pair claimed the house, fighting off chickadees, house sparrows and swallows for this real estate. During the summer, the pair fed on a variety of foods that they found in the landscape and we supplemented with a little snack of meal worms.

They only had one nesting that summer and the family wintered over. In the spring, the young were off to find their own territories and our parents managed three nestings last summer. So we have our original pair and 4 of the offspring wintering over this year.

Bluebirds in Winter

We have planted shrubs and trees that also provide food… such as serviceberry, viburnum, crabapple… for the fall when insects become more scarce. To help them out during the winter, we feed them meal worms but make sure we offer a mixed and balanced diet by adding bits of suet, hulled sunflower, and some berries and raisins. Bluebirds love to bathe!  A heated birdbath in the winter is a plus for bathing and drinking.

Bluebird with ice on beak

The blues generally roost at night in nearby pine forests, but will huddle in their bluebird house for shelter from time to time.

Bluebird in House

When I look out on snowy mornings and there is hardly a place for them to land, I wonder what these birds might be thinking. Could they be questioning their decision not to migrate to warm climes?  Just maybe…..

Bluebirds 2017

I don’t feed the birds anymore…

…with seeds in the summer, that is. What I mean is I don’t invest in expensive sunflower seeds all summer as I’ve done for 100 years. But I do provide food. It’s more natural food in the garden. We don’t have the variety of birds that we had keeping suet and seeds year round but we are royally entertained by those that frequent the landscape for berries, caterpillars and other insects, seeds on sunflowers, and we are generous with water. In an extreme drought like we are experiencing, all the neighborhood birds frequent the birdbath. Some simply sit and soak.

goldfinch on sunflower

Alas, I haven’t gone cold turkey with birdfood though. Maybe someday but for now  we are supplying mealworms to keep bluebirds (and us) happy. They are waiting when I take the feeder outside in the morning to have my coffee. And they are waiting when we supply mealworms at the dinner hour. We dine on the deck every evening and share space with 5 or 6 bluebirds of different ages…. parents and this year’s offspring.

Shortly after moving here, mister gardener made a bluebird box. It was doubtful we’d attract the birds in our small yard.  But, yes, if you build it, they will come. Last year was the first year. The couple had one nesting and now they have just completed their third nesting. That’s it for this year.

bluebird

This morning I sipped my coffee and watched as the last youngster looked eager to take flight. I waited with a second cup of coffee.  And then it did…. with the parents there to protect and guide it to the big viburnum where the other fledglings waited. The parents and older siblings slowly urged the newest fledglings to the old oak tree at edge of the forest as they always do. We can hear lots of excited calls welcoming the youngest to the family. There they keep them safe, feed them from a variety of sources, and when they are older, we’ll see them coming for mealworms twice a day with the others.

August 22 - Last Bluebird Fledgling

 

 

 

 

How I spent Mother’s Day

On Mother’s Day, it’s lovely that I have the liberty to do anything I please without any guilt or constraints. Household responsibilities are forgotten for a day. Phone calls, cards, gifts from children pour in and it’s fun to just bask in the glory of motherhood.

My first choice of activities was to play in the gardens of this rental house. For half the day, I did what I do best. I weeded, I trimmed, I pruned dead branches, I edged, transplanted and divided and I planted.

For the second half of the day, I spent time improving the bird habitat in the yard. I had seen bluebirds and heard bluebirds for weeks. The 3 bluebird houses that were in this yard were uninhabitable and installed too close together. Squirrels had enlarged the openings in the dilapidated old houses and added more large holes on sides and backs. So for Mother’s Day, Mister gardener bought a pole and new bird box and installed it for me along an old lichen-covered picket fence.

What happened next is surprising. Mister gardener picked up the tools, we headed inside. I proceeded upstairs to clean up after my day in the garden. A quick glance out the upstairs window at the new bird box made me do a double take. Less than 10 minutes had passed since we left the birdhouse and there was an interested male singing loudly. I took a few fuzzy telephoto photos through a window screen.

After seconds had passed, a female and future mother joined her mate to investigate the box inside and out.

She approved and they are actively building a nest today and defending the box against interested sparrows, swallows and other bluebirds. What a lovely gift for Mother’s Day!

Days ago, I added a hummingbird feeder to the garden. Shortly thereafter we saw our first visitor at the feeder, a male ruby-throated hummingbird.

Yesterday, a tiny female arrived at the feeder. I thought it was appropriate that another female bird is joining her mate in this yard on Mother’s Day. I was delighted.

Later that afternoon we ended our Mother’s Day celebration at the home of a daughter and husband who treated us to a spectacular repast under the stars. This was the best Mother’s Day adventure of the day as this daughter is enjoying her first Mother’s Day with their expected little arrival later in the summer. How divine!

Brown-Headed Nuthatches have moved in….

Click to enlarge photo of nuthatch

I am overjoyed about the current residents of mister gardener’s newly constructed bluebird house. A few days before their arrival, I received a forwarded article from the Northern Neck Virginia Audubon Society on a study by Dr. Mark Stanback of Davidson College in Charlotte, NC.  The United States Golf Association Wildlife Links sponsored a two-year study of the importance of pine forests density and nesting competition between bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches.

The study focused on golf courses where bluebird boxes were distributed. Dr. Stanback found that the density of pines had little to do with nest competition between both species yet his studies found that the small nuthatches are attracted to the bluebird boxes. Bluebirds would routinely evict resident nuthatches from boxes with the standard 1.5” bluebird openings. When the openings were reduced to 1.25”, too small for bluebirds, the nuthatches in North Carolina were regular bluebird box occupants.

I’ve had year-round brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) for the past three years and they nested somewhere in the pine forests. But just as I read about Dr. Stanback’s study, here they are going in and out of the new bluebird chapel in the azalea border.  But what’s this?  In and out were the neighborhood bluebirds, too. We needed to take immediate action. Mister gardener quickly overlaid a 1.25” opening atop the 1.5” opening. Like magic, it worked.  Mr. and Mrs. brown-headed nuthatch are nesting. The bluebirds still sit on the steeple and leave their messy calling cards but they can no longer enter the nests. UPDATE: Dr. Stanback has notified me that he is now advising 1″ openings, rather than 1.25″, to discourage sparrows. We will make a new 1″ opening as the 1.25″ can also allow titmice, the only birds we see the nuthatches chase from the area.

Dr. Stanback’s study concluded with an encouragement to golf courses in the nuthatch distribution range to make a subset of course boxes with smaller entrance holes and that 1/3 of the current bluebird boxes be provided with small holes. The brown-headed nuthatch is in decline in the Southeast.  Always thought to be caused by the loss of old grown pine, this study offers a different hypothesis: competition with the burgeoning Eastern Bluebird population is causing the decline of the brown-headed nuthatch.  Well, well, well….

USGS Patuxuent Wildlife Research Center -Brown-Headed Nuthatch Range

The Virginia Bluebird Society offered the following supportive statement on their website:  “Considering the availability of inch hole spacers, the current health of the bluebird population and the plight of the nuthatch, it seems reasonable to ask bluebirders in appropriate habitat in eastern Virginia to dedicate a subset of their nest boxes to this dull colored but charismatic cooperative breeder.”

Our bluebirds in Ware Neck are plentiful and bluebird boxes dot the landscape on our property and across the county. I am thrilled to learn of this latest study. The proof that it works is right in our own backyard and I encourage others who have an empty bluebird house and the brown-headed nuthatch in their yard to give this a try.  It worked for us. Thank you, Dr. Stanback!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester