Fumble and Search

Score!

The young woodpecker made a proud show of his loot.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are well equipped to forage. Their bills are built to chisel, hammer, and drill. They have long, sticky tongues with barbed tips—perfect for reaching into crevices and pulling out prey.

These birds are omnivores, happy to eat seeds, nuts, fruit, and meat. They’re both aggressive and tenacious. A few months ago, I filmed a Red-bellied Woodpecker pounding the life out of a bat before flying it away for consumption. At feeders, these woodpeckers will swipe peanuts from under squirrels’ noses. And when they find a hard-shelled seed or nut, they know exactly what to do: Wedge it into a tree crevice and hammer. They’ll catch the pieces with a cupped wing or trap them in belly and breast feathers pressed into the tree.

So, when the immature woodpecker leaned into a crevice with a nut in his bill, I expected to see a speedy pound-and-swallow maneuver.

Instead, I saw a fumble.

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One Ambitious Eagle

Two small patches of white caught my eye.

Even 400 yards away, they were unmistakable: A Bald Eagle’s head and tail. The bird was on a log that had become embedded in the muddy perimeter of Eagle Island. That’s the aptly named bit of high land that remained after our stretch of the Kalamazoo River was dammed decades ago.  Eagles are a common sight here. Only, this eagle was behaving somewhat oddly.

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Food for Courage

An all-caterpillar diet does not have to be boring.

That’s what I concluded as I watched Baltimore Oriole parents feed their nestlings during my recent nest-watch. They brought wiggly larvae in all colors, sizes, shapes, and textures: green, white, black, skinny, plump, smooth, striped, bumpy, and hairy. Aside from the occasional dragonfly and moth, the nestlings’ diet seemed pretty predictable.

Until they were about four days old.

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Watching and Wondering

Watching a bird incubate is not very exciting.

Lady Baltimore spends most of her time in the nest. So, I spend most of mine watching her sit. Or rather, watching her tail, which is mostly all that I see. By my calculations, it’s about time for her babies to start hatching, one per day for four or five days. And a cowbird, too, if the interloper I caught scoping out the nest managed to lay an egg inside.

So, I’m watching that unexciting nest closely, looking for any movement that might suggest hatchlings within.

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Hanging by a Thread

The Baltimore Oriole poked and pulled on her growing web of thread.

I was fascinated by her nest-building technique. Her work seemed somewhat random, yet over just a few days, the tangled thread evolved from loose and flat to a tightly woven, multi-layered pouch. Her construction project took about eleven days to complete. I marveled at how a bird’s instinct could guide such intricate weaving.

But Lady Baltimore’s work was not without drama.

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In a Terrible Tangle

The male Baltimore Oriole hopped onto the nest-in-process.

I was watching the early days of oriole nest construction. The male stopped by periodically, but not to weave, because the female does all the work. He would hop in, poke his beak at a few strings, and hop out. Cornell’s Birds of the World explains that when the male visits the nest, it’s usually to inspect his mate’s handiwork. And based on what I saw, he often messed it up, yanking out stitches as he fumbled in the tangled web of string.

But one day—the third day of construction—I watched in horror as the male, dubbed Lord Baltimore, didn’t just tug on the stringy nest material.

He got himself stuck.

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High Crimes

Curious, I thought.

A female grosbeak went inside a Baltimore Oriole nest. At least, that’s what I thought I saw. But after I posted a video on Facebook and Twitter, several friends corrected my error. The interloper was a Brown-headed Cowbird.

And that’s not good news for the orioles.

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Image Credits: Kurt Bauschardt.

Milady Makes a Nest

Baltimore Orioles are building a nest outside my window.

Thinking they deserve better than he, she, or it, I asked Facebook friends for names. I reminded everyone that five years ago, we named some nesting Pileated Woodpeckers Lucy and Ricky, inspired by their blazing red crests. For my new bird neighbors, friends suggested Fred and Wilma, Bogey and Bacall, Cal and Ripken, and Earl and Weaver, among others. But my favorite names were (sorry, baseball fans) Lord and Lady. I’m sure Cecilius Calvert and Anne Arundel, the Second Lord Baltimore and his Lady, wouldn’t mind.

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One Plucky Bird

Tufted Titmice are fearless little critters.

I’ve seen them squabble with much larger birds. They don’t hesitate to steal leaves from occupied squirrel dens. Yesterday, I watched one Tufted Titmouse gather nest material.  Her method doubled my respect for these birds’ pluck.

People sometimes toss hair outside, hoping birds will use it in their nests. Some birds forage fur from roadkill. But the Tufted Titmouse has another source for nest material. She harvests hair from sleeping animals. Dogs, squirrels, and raccoons are common targets.

Yesterday, I saw this seemingly reckless bird behavior with my own eyes.

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An Avian Friendversary

Five years ago, Pileated Woodpeckers friended me.

Okay… strictly speaking, it’s been a one-way friendship: Me admiring some magnificent birds.

It began in April 2015. I was home every day, all day, recovering from surgery. I felt confined, not unlike today’s stay-put virus isolation. My sanity-saver was our expanse of sliding glass doors. They overlook a steep, wooded bluff that brings some trees’ crowns near eye-level, just yards away.

When I first noticed two woodpeckers pounding persistently, I assumed they were foraging. The tree they were pecking wore fungus on its trunk. There had to be insects under the bark.

A week later, I realized my error.

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