That was me, early on the morning of June 13.
I’d been watching and filming a Wood Thrush nest, expecting nestlings to fledge at any time. This morning, I set up my video gear at the first light. I positioned my tripod and zoomed in on the nest… almost ready to record… then, crash! I knocked over my big stainless steel coffee cup, which landed on a flagstone. The startled nestlings squawked and leaped in unison.
My eyes witnessed the fledge. My camera did not.
I was so disappointed! But at least, I wasn’t worried that I’d spooked the nestlings into a premature fledge. According to my usual bird resource, Cornell’s Birds of the World, they were right on time for takeoff. But darn it! I had been ready to spend another full day parked behind my zoom lens, waiting.
That’s the end of my month-long Wood Thrush story, but let me back up. Some of its earlier scenes are well worth sharing. I think you’ll agree.
I noticed the beginnings of a nest on May 13. Here’s Mama at work two days later. Dad serenades her as she adds to her handiwork.
The next day, while Mama was away, another bird poked its nose into the nest:
Did you see the cowbird snatch a little snack before she left? It was a caterpillar (I saw it wiggling in the footage prior to the cowbird’s arrival). But that snack was not why she visited the nest.
Brown-headed Cowbirds are brood parasites. Instead of building a nest and raising her own young, the female lays her eggs in other birds’ nests. The ‘host’ birds nurture and raise the cowbird nestlings. Sometimes, a cowbird will remove a nest owner’s egg prior to laying its own egg. That’s how brood parasitism can threaten a host species’ population.
On this visit, we can see that the female cowbird did not lay an egg. But true to these birds’ M. O., she was almost certainly scouting the area for potential laying sites. This event added a note of drama to my nest-watching. Would the cowbird return and lay an egg?
According to the wonderful resource Journey North, the female cowbird typically enters an unguarded, target nest just before sunrise. She works fast, laying an egg in just 20-40 seconds. Under those circumstances, I was highly unlikely to see a cowbird’s stealthy egg drop. I would have to wait for nestlings to know if one of them was a sister or brother from another mother.
Here’s a montage of what I saw in the days that followed. This video shows the nestlings’ development from June 2, when I got my first glimpse of a hatchling, until June 12, the day before the fledge.
I think you’ll agree that the nestlings are all Wood Thrushes. And can you believe how incredibly fast they grew and developed their air-worthy feathers? Birds never cease to amaze me.
For the rest of the summer, I’ll be watching for juvenile Wood Thrushes, hoping to film some growing-up scenes. I’m not optimistic, though. In all the years that I’ve been treated to Wood Thrush music in the woods surrounding my home, I’ve almost never seen one, let alone had a camera at hand. They’re reclusive, and their plumage nearly disappears in the trees.
The cowbirds, on the other hand, strut right up to my windows and spend literally hours a day peering inside. I wrote about that odd behavior in an earlier post. I also filmed a Brown-headed Cowbird inspecting a Baltimore Oriole’s nest. That was two years ago when I had the great privilege of filming an oriole nest cycle, starting from the first grassy whisps the female wove into an intricate hanging basket. Here’s one post about that nest. There are quite a few more on my blog.
How lucky am I that I get to see and film so many wonderful nature stories, literally in my backyard?
Resources and a Picture Book
Journey North is an organization that invites citizen scientists to help track wildlife migration and ‘act as ambassadors for the conservation and protection of migratory species.’ They’re tracking a variety of birds, monarch butterflies, and even earthworms! Here’s their article about the Brown-headed Cowbird’s egg-laying approach.
Here’s the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide account about the Brown-headed Cowbird.
See also Audubon’s Wood Thrush account.
You can also read introductory comments about each bird on Cornell’s Birds of the World, but their detailed accounts are behind a paywall (which I pay for with a smile on my face).
Now, for a fantastic picture book you’ll want to read with the littles in your life:
The Nest That Wren Built, by Randi Sonenshine, illustrated by Anne Hunter, is the perfect book to have at hand when kids notice or talk about birds. Using lovely, lyrical text, the author follows wren parents as step-by-step, they build a nest and raise nestlings. The text uses a ‘house that Jack built’ rhyme and rhythm scheme. It’s fun to read and the detail, in both the text and the gorgeous art, is exceptional. Kids will want to read this book over and over. I highly recommend it.
Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.