Monday, July 28, 2014

Banding Purple Martins

Dale and I found ourselves enjoying a rare treat earlier this month.  We volunteered to help band baby purple martins.  So what is a purple martin? …. a little bird; a large swallow; North America’s largest swallow.

I grew up in central Wisconsin where purple martins were relative common.  If you live east of the Mississippi river, near some open country, have plenty of insects, and put up a communal purple martin house, you are apt to become the proud landlords to a bevy of purple martins. In the east martins are seldom found nesting in a natural cavity.   They are encouraged by people because they consume so many small insects, including lots and lots of mosquitoes.  It is always a happy sound to stand beneath a busy colony, full of chittering and frequent trips by the martins to and from the nests.  

Out here in the West I’ve never seen an occupied purple martin house like the ones so popular in the East.  Here  they still nest in natural cavities and are much less common.  When we moved to Douglas County, Oregon over thirty years ago I don’t remember any mention of purple martins; but apparently there were a few in the area.  I didn’t see any here until dedicated volunteers started hanging artificial nests in suitable habitat.  Here they use an old trick learned from American Indians.  The Indians hung gourds for the martins;  our volunteers hang several plastic gourds on a pole.  Once a year the gourds are cleaned out, preparing them for the next nesting season, and, in early summer, the babies are banded.  

Mid July Marnie Albritten invited Dale and me to help band purple martins at Cooper’s Creek Reservoir, Douglas County.  Marnie is a retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, and dedicated purple martin volunteer.  The upper end of the reservoir has a pleasant meadow plus an extensive marshy area. One pole stands out in the meadow.  It is designed to hold six gourds, but unfortunately one gourd had been stolen, obviously stolen because the thieves didn’t know how to properly pull the rest of the gourds back up.  At least they culprits had done a good enough job so that the remaining five gourds were all occupied.  
We arrived about 8 AM and worked quickly so our disturbance would be over with a soon as possible.  First the whole rack of gourds is lowered and each hole is covered with a temporary plug as quickly as possible so any babies near fledging can’t pop out prematurely.  Sometimes the simpliest equipment is the best.  Each hole is filled with a Dixie cup to which has been attached a long, red string.  The string is there to pull the cups out when the gourds are pulled back up in the air.  
Each gourd also has a large cap screwed on …. large enough for me to put my hand in.  I was chief grabber and holder of baby birds, Dale photographed, and Marnie aged, banded and took notes.  I’ve held a fair number of baby birds in my lifetime.  Kestrels are frantic pin cushions, ducklings wiggle and squirm, but these guys felt like a warm handful of quiet silly putty.  I was glad they are quiet because at this age they are covered with pin feathers.  The pin feathers are still growing and can easily be injured.  
One after another I picked up each nestling, Marnie banded and I temporarily put the 'done' ones in a towel lined bucket so I didn’t have to figure out which baby was banded and which one needed banding.  When each nest was done we put the nestlings back in their gourd and turned to the next.  
Three gourds still had eggs.  Two gourds had babies …. 10 nestlings as I remember.  The nestlings varied from 10 to 13 days old — no where near ready to fly.  Since they were so young we could remove the Dixie cup immediately rather than waiting until the nests were pulled back up.  
When done banding, Marnie hauled the rack of five nests back up the pole and we walked off a short distance.  Chittering and scolding the adults were soon swirling around the gourds. Some had food in their mouth; some were ready to go right back into their nest.

Back at the car we had one more fascinating encounter … and a good thing we had a professional biologist with us.  A fuzzy burnt orange ant came running across the parking lot.  I figured it was probably a velvet ant, the first Dale and I have found. I wanted it to stop running long enough for a picture and was about to stop it with my hands.  Marnie knew all too well what it was, and knew it has a nasty bite.  We decided and little prudence was in order and that we’d treat the ant with a little more respect.  While I blocked the ant’s path with my shoe, Dale clicked away. 

When I got home and looked up velvet ants I found one of their colloquial names is “Cow Killer.”  Ouch! They don’t really kill cows, but are well known for their painful bite.  I’m glad Marnie was along.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A New Egret Colony

This posting is my way of letting our local birds see Douglas County's first great egret colony.  Hopefully others will be interested too. Our help in this little project is a great example of how one can be a 'citizen scientist' without being formally signed up.
Most of the nests are clustered together.

Unless one looks at recent information on where great egrets nest in Oregon it'll probably show locations east of the Cascades. Any coastal colonies are well down in California.  Fortunately birds don't read books.  Close to thirty years ago great egrets started nesting in Coos County along the Oregon Coast.  This year exciting news came to Matt Hunter, the organizer of our local web site on Douglas County birds,  Dan Karpa reported great egrets nesting with the double-crested cormorants on Bolon Island, just north of Reedsport, Oregon -- also along the Oregon Coast.  Matt let us know that the Fish and Wildlife Service would appreciate photographs verifying the egret nests.   

Most years taking photos of the colony would be an easy task:  just hike out on the Highway 101 bridge north of Reedsport and photograph.  But this year all pedestrian traffic is closed while they slowly work on bridge repairs.  We needed another way.  Dan kindly offered to take us out to the site in his boat, but before we connected with him we found a way to hike down to the river edge directly across from the colony.  Dan could have gotten us closer, but photograhing from shore probably worked better because we were shooting from solid ground. 
Adult and three nestlings.
The cormorant colony on Bolon Island is a striking sight.  Several years of nest have killed most of the trees currently being used by the birds.  At this time of year the bushes beneath these snags are well frosted with whitewash.  The cormorants stick out like little black dots all over the colony.  I didn't count but my very rough guess is at least 60 nests. 

And one tree has white dots instead of black.  At least seven, probably 8-10, egret nests are clustered together amongst the cormorant nests.  They are nesting lower that most of cormorants and visible from the bridge as one drives by.  Both the egret and the cormorant nestlings are quite large at this time of year.  Some might have fledged already.
A different angle of the main nest tree.  This view shows two nest on the upper left side.

Looking carefully at our photos we found three more nests over to the right.  Those adults might still be incubating.  I wish the site was a little closer so we could see the details better. 

This is the second nest tree.  We photographed it thinking there was one nest, but then found two more when we looked at our images.  These birds might still be incubating.
I did a little reading at Cornell's site.  Great egrets usually have from 1 to 6 nestlings.  It takes about 100 days from egg laying to fledgling.  For awhile young birds return to the nest for feeding.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I've Been Busy!

Blackberry Blossom ... field sketch
This is a very quick blog post to let you all know I've been busy, having a hard time finding time to write.  I guess I should confess and admit I finally got a bee in my bonnet to sort though a lot of STUFF that has been accumulating.  Life was simpler when we got transferred every 2 or 3 years.  Now we've lived in one spot for over 30 years.  Oh my gosh!  all the stuff we've accumulated.
Gorse and Shore Pine -- field sketch from along the Coquille River last spring
Magpie in Yellowstone 
But I do try to find time to do a little art no matter how busy I am.  I feel as though I get rust in my veins if I don't pick up a brush or at least a pen on a regular basis.
These are all painted about the size of a post card..... fun to paint.  And most are field sketches like this daisy and butterfly painted at Sough Sough Reserve.
This one I did spent more time on.  Our daughter and her husband recently bought a 'transit van', a small utility van.  They've fixed it up for camping trips and quick day trips out into nature.  On their first trip out they went to a nearby lake and heard a loon, a barred owl and a kingfisher -- a good omen for future trips!