An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Bird Nests

Bald Eagles Refurbishing Nests

3-13-14 bald eagle on nest IMG_8514Bald Eagles in New England are repairing and adding to their nests, even as snow and cold temperatures continue. They often reuse their nest year after year – a nest in Ohio was used 34 years before the tree blew down. Although most don’t reach the record-breaking dimensions an eagle nest in Florida did (9 1/2’ wide, 20’ deep, weighing almost 3 tons), they are impressive structures, averaging five feet and three feet deep. Typically eagles will choose one of the biggest trees in an area in which to build their nest. Because their nests will be used for many years to come, eagles often choose living trees (which will remain standing longer) in which to build them. The nest is usually located in the top quarter of a tree, just below the crown. Both male and female eagles collect sticks for the nest, either finding them on the ground or breaking them off nearby trees. In parts of Alaska and northern Canada where trees are scarce and short, eagles often nest on the ground.

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Common Ravens Repairing & Building Nests

2-24-14 common raven IMG_2002Common Ravens have begun tending to their nests – one was seen snapping dead branches off of a Black Locust tree in Vermont last week. Often ravens will use the same nest for many years, renovating and repairing it every year. They typically nest on or in cliffs and trees (although abandoned cars, a satellite dish and a barbecue grill have been used), with the female doing the lion’s share of the construction. (The male assists her by bringing sticks to the nest site.) The base of the nest consists of sticks up to three feet long with smaller branches being woven into a cup lined with softer material such as sheep’s wool, fur and shredded bark. The finished nest is two to three feet across and up to four feet deep.

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Snow Buntings Headed Back to the Arctic

2-27-14 snow buntings2 091Whirling flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra. They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt. It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Thanks to Liz and Clemens Steinrisser for photo op.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Winter Mouse House

2-5-14 mouse nest with insulation roof IMG_4629White-footed Mice and Deer Mice are known for their keen ability to recognize a potential winter home when they see it. Abandoned bird nests provide firm foundations, and more often than not, mice will create an insulated roof made out of thistle down or milkweed fluff when renovating a nest. There are exceptions to this rule, however. If you look closely you’ll see that the roof of this nest has a slightly greenish tint, the reason being that the roofing material selected was none other than green insulation “borrowed” from a nearby human dwelling. (Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Red-eyed Vireo Nest

10-31-13 red-eyed vireo nest  033 Abandoned bird nests are evident now that leaves have fallen off the trees. Consider the time and effort that goes into the construction of one of these single-use nurseries. Take the Red-eyed Vireo’s nest you see here lying on the forest floor. The female selects a nesting site — a time-consuming task, as the requirements are that it conceal the nest and provide shade for her young. (Too much sun will cause her to abandon the nest. One female who had selected a sunny spot was observed pulling nearby green foliage over her nest and fastening it in place with spider webs.) The female vireo then collects nesting material for the three layers of her nest: Exterior – tree bark, spider-egg cases, wasp-nest paper, lichen, green leaves and pine needles. (Nests exposed to sunlight may be decorated with light-colored tree bark such as birch bark.) Interior – bark strips and plant fibers. Inner lining – grasses, pine needles, plant fibers and animal hair. She then weaves these materials into a cup-shaped nest that is suspended from a forked branch by its rim. A trip for materials is made every 3 – 11 minutes and roughly twenty seconds is spent working each load into the nest structure. This intensive work takes the female vireo approximately five days – all accomplished without the aid of any hands or tools, and she only uses the result of all this work once. Fortunately, recyclers make good use of her efforts.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Mice Preparing for Winter

10-25-13 mouse larder 012Animals that remain active in New England throughout the year often make preparations for the colder months, when food is much scarcer. Eastern Chipmunks store up to half a bushel of nuts and seeds in their underground tunnels, Red Squirrels hang mushrooms and apples out to dry and White-footed and Deer Mice create larders, often out of abandoned bird nests. Once their young have fledged, most songbirds never re-use their nest. Mice find these empty cup-shaped containers perfect for storing seeds that they collect in the fall. The mouse that took over this Northern Cardinal nest (located in a rose bush) didn’t have to go far to collect a sizeable number of rose hips. One hopes that this isn’t this particular mouse’s only cached food, as most of the seeds (within the fleshy red covering) have been devoured. (Thanks to Marian Marrin for photo op.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Eastern Kingbird Nestling With A Mouthful

kingbird feeding young female widow skimmer dragonfly 1090If you look very closely you will see that the adult Eastern Kingbird has just stuffed a female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (that it has caught and killed) down the throat of one of its nestlings whose beak is pointed skyward. Eventually, after much hard work, the young kingbird succeeded in swallowing the insect, wings and all. The parents will continue feeding their nestlings for at least three weeks after they have fledged.


Black-capped Chickadees Still Nest-building

7-5-13  black-capped chickadee 006Black-capped Chickadees tend to be early nesters, often as early as April, as they build their nest inside a cavity where it is sheltered from the cold. Chickadees rarely re-use a nest, so one might guess that this Black-capped Chickadee with nesting material in its beak in early July has a second brood on its way. However, it is unusual for Black-capped Chickadees to have a second brood of young after the first has fledged. If they lose the first brood, they sometimes will re-nest, but it’s more likely that this chickadee is just a late nester, as nest-building can and does occur up until mid-July. Both members of a pair excavate a cavity in a rotting tree, stump or post and then the female alone builds the nest inside the cavity. The foundation of the nest is usually made of coarse material such as moss. The lining consists of softer, finer material such as deer hair, rabbit fur, or in this case, an aging chocolate Labrador Retriever’s hair.


Red-shouldered Hawks Nesting

red-shouldered 008Male red-shouldered hawks put on an impressive courtship display for females. The male enacts a “sky dance” in which he soars while calling, then makes a series of steep dives toward the female, climbing back up in wide spirals after each descent, before finally rapidly diving to perch upon the female’s back. After copulation, the female lays her eggs in a nest which she has most likely used for several years. It is usually located below the canopy but more than halfway up a tree, generally in a crotch of the main trunk. Both male and female hawks build or refurbish the nest, adding fresh evergreen sprigs to it throughout the nesting period (eastern hemlock in pictured nest). Females do most of the incubating and brooding of the young, with the male providing food. The nestlings pictured are roughly two weeks old; in three or four weeks they will begin to climb out on branches away from the nest, in preparation for fledging.


Spotted Sandpiper Role Reversal

6-19-13 spotted sandpiper 412Spotted Sandpipers are a relatively easy shorebird to identify, with their spotted breasts, their constant body-bobbing/teetering and the stiff beat of their wings. Although they are a shorebird, they can be found near freshwater ponds and streams throughout North America. Spotted Sandpipers differ from most birds in that the male and female roles are completely reversed when it comes to breeding – from courtship to parental care. The females establish and defend their territory, often arriving on nesting grounds before the males. Females court the males, performing display flights as well as strutting displays on the ground. Males, usually less aggressive and smaller in size, do the lion’s share of incubating the eggs and brooding the young chicks.


Common Loons Nesting

6-13-13 loon on nest 457Generally speaking, Common Loons return to northern New England from their coastal wintering waters sometime in April or May. Males and females pair up after they arrive at their ponds, and several weeks later they breed and build a new nest or renovate an old one, with the male choosing the actual nest site. Successful nests sites are often reused from year to year, especially if the male returns. Protection from wind, waves and predators is paramount. Because their hind legs are positioned so far back on their body, loons are awkward walkers, at best. Thus, they usually build their nest adjacent to water so that they can easily slip onto and off of it. The nest is constructed during the day by both adults and is made of vegetation that the loons collect close to the nest. A loon often sits on the nest while collecting material, stretching its head down into the water in order to retrieve vegetation which it then places on the nest. Two eggs are laid, usually between mid-May and early June. After being incubated by both parents, the eggs hatch in roughly 28 days. As this photograph indicates (egg just visible below loon’s body), material continues to be added to the nest during incubation.


Beaver Ponds & Waterfowl

6-5-13 mallard & ducklings 151The relationship between beavers and waterfowl is a strong one. In creating ponds and wetlands, beavers provide valuable waterfowl habitat. Beaver ponds are attractive to most dabbling duck species, particularly American Black Ducks and Mallards (pictured). Dead snags that are often found in beaver ponds provide Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads and Wood Ducks with nesting cavities. During spring and fall, beaver ponds are used by migrating waterfowl, such as Green-winged Teal and Ring-necked Ducks, for the fuel they provide (aquatic invertebrates, plant seeds, tubers, buds and rhizomes). Waterfowl surveys in 2002 in Wyoming found that rivers and ponds with beavers had 75 times more ducks than those without beavers.


Male House Sparrows Rise to the Occasion

5-28-13 male House Sparrow  070The House Sparrow’s (also known as English Sparrow) reputation leaves a bit to be desired. It is an introduced species which has thrived in North America to the point where it is considered a nuisance species and an agricultural pest. Its tendency to displace native birds such as Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows from nest boxes does not endear it to many bird lovers. However, one has to acknowledge the fact that male House Sparrows are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to parenting. Males help choose the nest site, build the nest, incubate the eggs, brood and feed the nestlings and keep the nest clean by removing the nestlings’ fecal sacs. That’s more than can be said for some of our most admired species, such as male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which disappear shortly after copulation.


Hermit Thrushes Nesting

5-21-13 hermit thrush nest 222Hermit thrushes, Vermont’s state bird, are typically ground nesters east of the Rocky Mountains (west of them, they tend to nest off the ground) and often, as in this case, choose a nest site that is in a patch of Lycopodium, or ground pine. Usually a branch from a nearby tree, a fern, or some other taller vegetation provides cover and effectively conceals the nest. The female hermit thrush builds the nest and begins incubation after the last of her three or four eggs is laid. Twelve days later the eggs hatch, and twelve or thirteen days after that the young fledge.


Raven Chicks About To Fledge

5-14-13 raven nestlings DA8A1747Looking as if it were stuck to the vertical cliff wall by crazy glue, a raven’s nest is often used for several years in a row. The nestlings remain in the nest for about 5 to 7 weeks, during which time they go from being an orange/pink color, sparsely covered with gray down, to the black plumage of an adult. The pictured nestlings are approximately five weeks old, and have just started to exercise their wing muscles in preparation for their first flight. They are panting with open beaks in an attempt to dissipate the heat of an unrelenting May sun. Within a week or two they will leave the nest, but will stay nearby for a few days. I couldn’t get close enough to give this nest a smell test, but supposedly raven nests can have an unbelievably unpleasant odor (due to the remains of leftover food/ carrion and feces).


Killdeer Nesting

5-7-13 killdeer by Sadie IMG_7096_croppedThis is the time of year when it pays to watch where you walk – there are a number of ground nesting birds, some of which, including killdeer, may choose your lawn or even your garden to build their simple “scrape” nest. Typically killdeer nest on the shoulders of roads, gravel roof tops, fields and gravel parking lots. The nest is very primitive, and there’s actually very little to it — killdeer scrape a slight depression in the ground, to which they often add bits of material, including white objects such as shells and bones. Their pigmented eggs are extremely well camouflaged. The young precocial killdeer chicks are on their feet and feeding themselves as soon as their down feathers dry. (Photo by Sadie Richards)


Great Blue Herons Mating

4-22-13 great blue herons copulating2  IMG_8954Numerous displays lead up to the mating of great blue herons – neck stretching, bill clacking, wing preening, circling flights, twig shaking, crest raising, neck fluffing, to name but a few. After this elaborate courtship comes copulation, which is not nearly as showy. Copulation typically takes place on the nest. The male places one foot gently in the center of the female’s back. The female leans forward, bends her ankles and holds her wings slightly away from her sides while the male lowers himself, often flapping his wings. Once the job is done, the male flies off. If you look closely you can perhaps make out that the male is grasping the female’s head/neck while copulation takes place.


Killdeer Distracts Predator by Feigning Injury

4-15-13 killdeer IMG_8336

Killdeer arrived back in northern New England last month and have already begun nesting. Being a ground nester, the killdeer has many mammalian predators from which it needs to protect its eggs, including weasels, skunks, opossums and raccoons. Nesting killdeer have a number of responses to predators, which include several different types of distraction displays which draw attention to the bird away from its nest. One of the most common displays is to feign injury by assuming a position which makes the bird appear vulnerable. When a predator approaches, the bird runs away from the nest, crouches with its head low, wings drooping and tail fanned and dragging the ground to display its rufous rump-patch. The predator typically follows, seeing an easy meal, and as soon as it gets too close for the killdeer’s comfort, the killdeer continues to lead it off by alternate flights and sprints.


Common Raven Defends Nesting Territory

4-5-13 raven chasing red-tail2 IMG_8693Common ravens are known for their aerial acrobatics, often doing rolls and somersaults and other amazing tricks.  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one bird was seen flying upside down for more than a half-mile. Young birds are fond of playing games with sticks, repeatedly dropping them and then diving to catch them in mid-air.  The pictured raven, however, was much too busy to be doing cartwheels in the sky.  It has a nest with eggs nearby, and during its morning patrol encountered a red-tailed hawk which it drove out of sight in a matter of seconds.  Although small mammals make up most of a red-tail’s diet, they are known to also prey on smaller birds, including defenseless nestlings, which the ravens will have in the next few weeks. (Because of the angle, the  24-inch-long, 53-inch-wingspread raven looks disproportionally larger than the 19-inch-long, 49-inch wingspread red-tail.)


Red-shouldered Hawks Building and Refurbishing Nests

4-5-13 red-shouldered hawk nest IMG_8573With winter temperatures still upon us, it can be challenging to find signs of spring in the hills of Vermont.  However, subtle signs do exist if you know where to look!  Notice the fresh greenery in this nest – it confirms that recent refurbishing has taken place by returning red-shouldered hawks.  Roughly two feet in diameter, a red-shouldered hawk’s stick nest is lined with moss, lichen, bark and conifer sprigs.  Other  items that have been used as building material for these raptors include ears of corn, corncobs, corn husks, tissue paper, nests of songbirds, straw, mullein, leaves, twine, various deciduous tree leaves, entire plants, dried tent caterpillar webs and plastic grocery bags. The pictured nest will serve as a nursery for two to five red-shouldered hawk chicks in about a month’s time, and as the nesting season progresses, sprays of conifers such as the hemlock sprigs you see here will continue to be added.


Yellow Warbler Nest

2-7-13 yellow warbler nestIMG_0900Winter provides an opportunity to get a close look at last year’s bird nests to see who might have been nesting under our very noses without divulging their presence (Peterson’s Field Guide to Bird Nests is a great resource). A walk near wetlands in winter often reveals a yellow warbler nest. It is quite easy to recognize as it is lined with downy plant fibers and is fairly thick-walled. Yellow warblers are often victims of brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and therefore avoid the labor of raising their own chicks. Many birds don’t recognize a cowbird’s egg, and incubate it and raise the young cowbird chick as their own. Yellow warblers, however, can distinguish between their eggs and a cowbird’s. Upon returning to her nest and finding a cowbird egg (often laid before the host bird begins laying her eggs), the female yellow warbler simply builds another nest right on top of the nest containing the cowbird egg, and begins anew. As many as six stories of nests have been found with cowbird eggs buried in each layer.


Renovated Bird Nests

Most songbirds only use their nest once. After their young have fledged, the nest is usually abandoned. In the natural world, recycling has been a way of life for a long time, and abandoned bird nests are not about to be wasted. In the spring, the material used in old nests is often re-used by birds building new nests. But long before this occurs, white-footed mice and deer mice, both of which remain active year round, often use old nests as larders where they store food for the winter. Occasionally they even renovate a nest in the fall in order to make a snug, winter home. They do this by constructing a roof (of milkweed fluff in this photograph) over the nest, which serves to insulate it. Use caution if you come upon such a nest– it could well be inhabited! (Thanks to Sara and Warren Demont for the photo op!)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Bird Nest I.D.

Now that the leaves are off the deciduous trees, it is much easier to see where songbirds nested this past summer.  Just as every songbird species has a specific song unlike that of other species, each species also constructs nests that are very similar to each other, but not to other species’ nests. Thus, one American robin nest looks a lot like any other American robin nest – nests of one species are usually found in roughly the same kind of habitat, with the same dimensions and similar building materials. Sometimes there are key characteristics that help with identification – grape vines and a lining of rootlets told me a gray catbird built the nest in the photograph. (Plastic told me humans weren’t  far away.) Most songbirds only use their nest once; after the young have fledged, they abandon their nests.  Before the weather and/or critters recycle this year’s nests, take advantage of the opportunity to examine these gems of avian architecture up close. (A federal permit is needed in order to collect bird nests.)  A good book for nest identification is Peterson’s Field Guide to Bird Nests.


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