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Nests

Northern Cardinal Nests: Safety in Numbers

This is the time of year to keep an eye out for bird nests that were hidden by leaves all summer. Their location can reveal more than one might guess.  As with many bird species, the female Northern Cardinal does most of the nest-building herself, usually selecting a site that is in dense shrubbery, often in a tangle of vines.  Frequently there are two broods, but rarely is a nest reused.  Instead, a new nest is built for the second clutch of eggs, and it can intentionally be located quite close to the first nest.

The two pictured Cardinal nests were both built this year, only four feet apart in a grape vine-covered stand of Staghorn Sumac. Two different birds would not have nested so close to each other due to territoriality; thus, the same bird most likely built both nests. Ornithologists feel that the presence of old nests may function as protection against predation.  They found that when they placed an empty Cardinal nest adjacent to a Cardinal nest containing plastic eggs, there was significantly less predation than with single Cardinal nests. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo opportunity.)

(NB:  Even though most songbirds only use their nest once and then abandon it,  one needs a federal permit to collect bird nests.)

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Northern Cardinal Nests: Safety In Numbers

This is the time of year to keep an eye out for bird nests that were hidden by leaves all summer. Their location can reveal more than one might guess.  As with many bird species, the female Northern Cardinal does most of the nest-building herself, usually selecting a site that is in dense shrubbery, often in a tangle of vines.  Frequently there are two broods, but rarely is a nest reused.  Instead, a new nest is built for the second clutch of eggs, and it can intentionally be located quite close to the first nest.

The two pictured Cardinal nests were both built this year, only four feet apart in a grape vine-covered stand of Staghorn Sumac. Two different birds would not have nested so close to each other due to territoriality; thus, the same bird most likely built both nests. Ornithologists feel that the presence of old nests may function as protection against predation.  They found that when they placed an empty Cardinal nest adjacent to a Cardinal nest containing plastic eggs, there was significantly less predation than with single Cardinal nests. (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo opportunity.)

(NB:  Even though most songbirds only use their nest once and then abandon it,  one needs a federal permit to collect bird nests.)

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Marsh Wrens Nesting

More often heard than seen, the Marsh Wren has a distinctive song that quickly alerts you to the fact that they are nesting in the area. Sung by the male at dawn, dusk and sometimes throughout the night, the song is a rapid series of gurgling and buzzy trills. Though each note may only last for 1–2 seconds, they can sing continuously for up to 20 minutes, rarely repeating the same note. To hear their song go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Marsh_Wren/sounds .

Even though their nests are plentiful (males build multiple nests) they are well hidden and difficult to detect in amongst the cattails and bulrushes where they are built.  About 50% of males mate with two or more females and most males build at least six dummy nests for every female they mate with.  (In some parts of their range males build an average of 22 nests.) Scientists aren’t sure why the males build so many dummy nests – perhaps as decoys for predators.  They are built two to five feet above the ground and are about 7” tall and dome-shaped with an entrance hole in the upper half. Once the female has chosen one of the male’s nests or built her own, she lines it with strips of grass, sedge, cattail down, feathers, and rootlets.

Possibly as a result of intense competition for resources in the marsh environments in which they nest and raise young, Marsh Wrens routinely destroy the eggs of other birds, including other Marsh Wrens.  (Note:  Pictured active Marsh Wren nest was built in rushes, which are preferred over cattails later in the nesting season, when cattails have dried out.)

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Osprey Nesting Behavior

Naturally Curious is back!  Different ecosystem (western vs. eastern Vermont) but same curiosity!  This week’s posts are going to be devoted to the nesting behavior of the Osprey — the only raptor that plunge-dives feet first to catch live fish as its main prey source.

Ospreys nest within six to twelve miles of water (usually much closer).  The male collects most of the nesting material and brings it to the nest site where the female arranges it. Sticks as large as an inch-and-a-half in diameter and three feet long are collected from the ground, or (less commonly) snapped off a tree while the Osprey is in flight.  Nest-building continues throughout the incubation of the eggs as well as the brooding period — even if a nest fails, Ospreys will continue to add material to it.

Although nests built on platforms are relatively small, those built in trees or on the ground can be 10 -13 feet deep and 3 – 6 feet in diameter (the largest nests are most likely the result of several generations of nesting Ospreys).  The shape of an Osprey nest changes during the breeding cycle.  When the eggs are being incubated, the nest is bowl-shaped.  After hatching the nest flattens out, but a rim of sticks is maintained. By the time the nestlings fledge (around 50-55 days) the nest is often completely flat.

Ospreys will reuse their nest year after year, saving themselves time and energy which allows earlier laying and more surviving young. Birds whose nests fail are likely to build alternate nests and use them in subsequent years. (Birds of the World Online).

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Eastern Gray Squirrels Lining Nests

Congratulations to Wanda Rice, the first Naturally Curious reader to recognize sign made by a squirrel collecting nesting material. Many people thought it might be a porcupine at work, but porcupines, as “hellomolly” pointed out in her comment, do not leave strips of bark hanging, while squirrels do.

In the Mystery Photo, an Eastern Gray Squirrel had been shredding and collecting the thin bark of a Maple Sugar sapling to line its nest with.  Gray squirrels nest throughout the year, but nesting activity peaks during their two mating seasons (December -March, and May – July).  They build two types of nests – large, round, leafy nests among tree branches (dreys) and cavity nests, the latter being preferred during the colder months. Abandoned woodpeckers nests as well as natural-formed cavities provide additional protection in the winter from predators as well as the elements. (Drey broods are 40 percent less likely to survive than squirrels born in tree cavities — a hole no wider than three or four inches protects them from large predators such as raccoons.) Both types of nests are lined with soft material such as lichen, moss, grass, pine needles and shredded bark.

The effect of a squirrel’s stripping a tree’s bark depends on the extent of the damage. Usually a young tree is chosen due to the thinness of the bark and the ease with which it can be stripped.  Although a tree can survive with some of its bark removed, it will die if the damage is too severe or bark is stripped off around the tree’s circumference.  Stripped bark not only provides nesting material but the process of stripping the bark exposes the tree’s cambium layer which contains the nutrients and sugars a tree has produced and which squirrels readily consume. (Eastern Gray Squirrel photos by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Great Horned Owl Nestlings About To Fledge

5-17-19 great horned owls_U1A8938Great Horned Owls do not build their own nests, though they may provide some lining to an existing cavity or nest. Snags, cliffs and man-made structures provide nesting sites, but most commonly Great Horned Owls use the tree nests of other species such as hawks (especially Red-tailed) crows, ravens and squirrels. Most, but not all, nests are used for only one season. Pictured is a Great Blue Heron nest that has been usurped by a Great Horned Owl family – a feat achieved by the owls claiming the nest as early as February, prior to the return of herons.

After incubating her eggs for roughly a month, the female Great Horned Owl then broods her young for two to three weeks. The father’s role consists of bringing food to the female while she is incubating and brooding. She then tears the food up into bite-size pieces for the nestlings.

When the nestlings no longer need the heat their mother’s body provides, brooding ends but the mother stays with her nestlings until they fledge at about seven weeks of age. (Pictured: Great Horned Owl mother and two downy nestlings, roughly six weeks old. Thanks to Marc Beerman for photo op.)

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American Crows Building Nests

3-6-19 A. crow IMG_1920Congratulations to Robyn Deveney and Chris Wings, the first Naturally Curious readers who accurately suggested the Mystery Photo depicted the tracks of an American Crow collecting nesting material. As I approached the pictured area, I flushed two black birds who were soon cawing and flying overhead, with a stick protruding from one of their beaks.

Crows are one of the earliest passerine, or perching, birds to engage in nest-building and egg-laying. Crows tend to build new nests each year, seldom reusing a nest from a previous year. In New England both members of a pair are busy collecting nesting material such as sticks, bark strips, weeds and mud, in March. They bring this material back to the nest site, which is typically a conifer, and construct a bulky nest usually in the crotch of the tree or on a horizontal branch. It takes anywhere from one to two weeks for crows to complete a nest and up to six days to lay 2 – 6 eggs. Incubation typically begins in early April.

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Common Grackles Nest-building

4-23-18 common grackle 0U1A0687

Common Grackles are hard to miss and hard to mistake for any other bird, with their yellow eyes, iridescent bronze or purple plumage and long, keel-shaped tails. Most of the spring migrants have reached their breeding grounds, and courtship, mating and nest-building are underway.

Because grackles begin reproduction so early in the season, conifers are the nesting site of choice due to the cover they provide. Females tend to choose the actual site for a nest, and in so doing can be quite fickle, often abandoning partially constructed nests and selecting alternative sites. They earn this right, as they’re usually doing all the construction work, although males have been observed with nesting materials, helping to build and repair nests.

Look for their 6-8”-diameter, large bulky nests near water, agricultural fields or near human habitation. They are usually built four to twenty feet above the ground. If you find a bird on the nest, it will most likely be an incubating female (slightly less glossy than male) – males not only do not have a brood patch and do not participate in incubating the eggs or brooding the young, but roughly half of the males desert their mates during this time. Those that do remain participate in the feeding of their young nestlings.

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Downy Woodpeckers Nest-building

4-16-18 downy2 049A4077

Downy Woodpeckers are beginning to scout for potential nest sites, preferring the dead stubs of a living or dead tree. Both sexes have been observed selecting the nest site, although females do so more commonly. Just because you see a Downy Woodpecker pecking at a site, however, doesn’t mean it will end up nesting there, as excavation is often started at several sites before one is chosen.

When a potential nest site is decided upon by either sex, it often drums to inform its mate, and its mate often flies to the site and taps or drums in response. It takes about 16 days for both male and female to excavate a cavity. A round entrance hole of roughly 1 ¼” in diameter can make it hard for an egg-bearing female to squeeze into the nest. Egg-laying begins anywhere from one to ten days after the completion of the nest cavity, and three to eight eggs are laid, one per day, usually before 10 a.m.. (Photo: male Downy Woodpecker excavating nesting hole)

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Gray Squirrel Dreys

12-11-17 squirrel drey IMG_9660

With most deciduous trees having lost their leaves, squirrel nests, or dreys, are more noticeable. Red Squirrels, Eastern Gray Squirrels and Flying Squirrels all build dreys. Those of the Red Squirrel are round, grassy balls, 8” – 10” in diameter. In contrast, Gray Squirrel nests are usually larger and made of sticks and leaves. Flying Squirrel dreys are so high that they are rarely observed.

The dreys most commonly seen are made by Gray Squirrels. Usually 30 or more feet high, these shelters are typically built near the main trunk of the tree, in a crotch where several small branches meet, or on a strong, thick limb. Construction takes place in the summer or early fall, before trees have formed the abcission layers that cause leaves to separate and fall from branches. Therefore, the leaves on a drey’s branches tend to remain for quite some time, forming an effective water-shedding outer layer.

Branches are loosely woven into a foot-wide hollow sphere. The drey is lined with insulating grass, moss, leaves, and shredded bark. Usually there is one entrance/exit hole, facing the trunk (so as to keep rain out). Often squirrels build two dreys, giving themselves another shelter option should one nest be disturbed by a predator or overrun with parasites.

A drey is usually inhabited by one squirrel, but two are known to occupy a single drey in order to keep warm in the winter. Gray Squirrels give birth in late winter and again in the summer. A more protective tree cavity usually serves as a nursery in the winter, and the drey in summer. The average drey is only used for a year or two before it is abandoned.


Wild Turkey Hens On Eggs

wild turkey nest 238

This is what a typical Wild Turkey’s nest looks like – anywhere from 4 to 17 eggs in a shallow depression in the ground.  Sometimes, however, turkeys engage in a practice referred to as “egg dumping.” A hen turkey comes along and lays a few eggs in several other turkeys’ nests, in an effort to maximize the number of her offspring that will survive.  Up to 26 eggs have been found in a single Wild Turkey nest.  The hen turkey that built the nest doesn’t reject the additional eggs, but rather, welcomes them to her brood, incubates them and treats them as her own.  All of the precocial chicks are out of the nest within 24 hours of hatching and follow the hen, who feeds them for a few days until they learn to find food on their own.

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Eastern Bluebirds Nesting

4-22-16  bluebirds nesting 239

Eastern bluebirds are preparing for the first of the two or three broods they will raise this summer.  Contrary to what those of us who clean out our bluebird boxes have been led to believe, Cornell Lab of Ornithology states that experiments show preferences for nesting boxes containing old nests. In a paired experimental design bluebirds chose boxes containing old nests in 38 of 41 cases in which boxes with old nests were paired with empty ones.  Scientists conjecture that this may be because the old nests often contain wasp larvae, an easy source of food for the bluebirds.

Females build their nest over several days.  Grasses and pine needles are gathered from the ground and delivered to the nest box.  Fine grasses, horse hair and turkey feathers often provide the soft, innermost lining of the nest.  While the male enters the box during the nest-building process, perhaps to inspect, he does not actively collect material or participate in the building of the nest. Once the 3 – 7 eggs are laid, the female spends the next two weeks or so incubating them.  She then broods the young for about a week, and both parents provide them with food for up to three weeks after the young have fledged. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Meadow Vole Nests

meadow vole nest  089Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus), tiny mouse-like rodents, spend a majority of their time on the surface of the ground, particularly in moist fields filled with grasses and sedges. They have elaborate runways through the vegetation – well-worn trails about the width of a garden hose which they keep mowed down with their incisors. Latrines of small brownish-green pellets can be found intermittently along the trails.

Most meadow vole nests are constructed out of dried grasses, also on the surface of the ground, although they are sometimes built at the end of shallow burrows. When above ground, the nests are often located in the center of a grass tussock, where they are less apt to be flooded. When there is snow on the ground they are a bit easier to find, as the heat of the voles inside the nest melts away the snow, forming a chimney that sometimes reveals the nest below.

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Home Delivery for Barred Owl Nestlings

email- barred owl adult & young with red-backed vole  1051Young Barred Owls are fed by their parents from the day they hatch until late summer/early fall. During their first two weeks, food is delivered by the adult male to the adult female, in a bill-to-bill exchange. The female tears up the prey into swallowable bits and feeds them to her offspring. During this time the female does little hunting, but she begins to capture prey after about two weeks of brooding the young. At about this time, the young begin consuming whole prey on their own (see photo). Female prey deliveries are greatest immediately following sunset and immediately prior to sunrise, while male prey deliveries remain fairly constant throughout the night. (Photo: Barred Owl delivering Red-backed Vole to nestling.) (Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op.)

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Eaglets Hatching

bald eagles2  254When eagle chicks hatch they are covered with light gray down and have brown eyes and pink legs. One parent, usually the female, spends most of the day in the nest with her young for the first three weeks, brooding and keeping them warm. The male provides most of the food during this time. After he delivers prey, she tears off small pieces and feeds them to the nestlings. The chicks gain weight rapidly – roughly ¼ pound a day – so that in three or four short weeks the young are nearly the size of an adult. Eaglets are roughly six weeks old before they are capable of tearing off food and feeding themselves, and at least eight weeks old before they leave the nest. (Note corn stalk that’s been incorporated into nest; photo: one-week-old eaglet & its mother)

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Ospreys Laying Eggs

5-5-15 osprey 266Ospreys are late-season breeders compared to other raptors of their size, and are just starting to lay and incubate their eggs in the Northeast. This is thought to be an adaptive delay to allow ice to break up and to allow fish to move into shallow waters. (In years of late ice-out, ospreys may not breed.)

Both male and female ospreys incubate their 1 – 4 eggs, but the female generally does a majority of it, and nearly always is the incubator at night. The male typically brings the incubating female food, which she takes to a nearby perch to eat while he sits on the eggs. Once the eggs hatch (in about 5 weeks) the young are brooded by the female. The male does the fishing, bringing his prey back to the nest, eating his fill and then giving it to his mate to tear into small bits and feed to their nestlings.

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Black-capped Chickadees Starting to Build Nests

3-13-15  black-capped chickadee and Emma's hair 067At least two to four weeks before one would expect to find a black-capped chickadee building a nest, one was busily collecting hairs shed by my chocolate lab yesterday. In addition to fur, chickadees line their nest with grass (not available yet here), down and moss (hard to come by with two feet of snow still on the ground). Chickadees are able to nest this early in part because they nest in cavities, which offer them protection from the elements. Not having bills strong enough to hammer out cavities in living trees, chickadees rely heavily on rotting stumps for nest sites — the wood in them is punky and easy to remove. Birch, poplar and sugar maple snags and stumps are preferred nesting trees. If you want to provide chickadees and other birds with nesting material, take advantage of the fact that dogs and cats are shedding now, and recycle their fur.

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Bird Nests Visible

11-25-14 black-throated blue nest  043When leaves start falling from deciduous trees, bird nests appear out of nowhere. Most songbirds abandon their nest after raising one brood, never to return to it. An empty nest sits where it was built until the elements break it down, another animal recycles the material from which it was made, or a mouse takes over winter occupancy. The period of time after the leaves fall and before winter and other creatures deconstruct the nests is ideal for discovering who raised their young under your nose this past summer.

Just as each species of bird has its own distinctive song, each species also builds a unique nest. It is often possible to determine what species built a nest without ever setting eyes on the bird. The size, shape, material used and habitat in which a nest is built are remarkably similar for all birds of a given species. Eastern phoebe nests mainly consist of mud covered with moss. Gray catbirds incorporate grape vine into their nests, and line them with rootlets. Ovenbird nests are on the ground, roofed over like old-fashioned ovens. While federal permits are necessary to collect these nests, they can be admired and identified without a permit. (Photo: the combination of this nest’s size (3” outer diameter), location (3’ off the ground) and material used (yellow birch bark strips, grasses, cocoons and black rootlet lining) pinpoint the builder as a Black-throated Blue Warbler.)

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Great Golden Digger Wasps Digging Nests & Provisioning Them with Food

8-11-15 great golden d.w.2 159The Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus, is a solitary, predatory wasp whose hunting and nesting techniques are programmed and never vary. Having overwintered underground in a nest dug by its mother, the adult wasp emerges, often in August, and begins preparations for the next generation. She digs several nests in packed, sandy soil, using her mandibles to cut the earth. Emerging backwards from the ground with a lump of soil between her forelegs and head, she flips the soil with her forelegs beneath her body, scattering it to the sides with her hind legs. In this manner she excavates several cells off a central 4-6-inch deep tunnel.

The wasp seeks out prey — often a grasshopper, cicada or cricket – and then stings and paralyzes it. If the prey is small, she flies it directly to the nest. If prey is too large to transport aerially, the wasp will walk with it across the ground, dragging it by its antennae (see photo). She then drops the prey several inches from the nest hole. After crawling down into the nest for a brief inspection, she pulls the prey down into one of the cells while walking backwards. She then leaves to find another insect. When a cell contains paralyzed prey, the wasp lays an egg on the insect. The egg hatches within two or three days and the wasp larva begins eating the insect. Because the prey is not dead, decomposition is delayed, and the wasp larva’s food is relatively fresh. The developing wasps overwinter in the nest and emerge the following summer to begin the process all over again.

If you live near a sunny area of compacted clay and sand that has flower nectar for adults to feed on and crickets, grasshoppers and katydids for their larvae, you may well have a chance to observe this unique ritual. (Thanks to Marian Cawley for photo op.)

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Common Loons: Egg-laying & Incubation

7-1-14  Loons #2 - incubating 404Typically Common Loons lay two eggs, each of which is roughly four inches long and olive green to brown in color, with brown or black splotches. The eggs are laid one to three days apart with the 28-day incubation period beginning when both eggs have been laid. Both parents incubate, turning the eggs when they switch places or during long periods of incubation. If the loon on the nest is anxious for relief, it will give a “wail” call, and if its mate does not respond, it continues wailing, even after leaving the nest to find its mate.

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Common Loons: Nest-building

6-30-14  Loons #1 - nest building 496Naturally Curious posts for the next four days will be devoted to Common Loons. They are nesting now, eggs are hatching, chicks are swimming, parents are feeding – life is good on ponds and lakes in the north woods, and I would love to share this magical time with you.

Both members of a pair of Common Loons contribute to nest-building in May or June. Their ground nest is often built on the sheltered side of an island, facing the mainland. It is usually within just a few feet of the water, eliminating the necessity for the loons to walk very far. (The position of their legs far back on their bodies is advantageous when it comes to diving and swimming, but makes walking very challenging.) Both male and female share the building of the nest, throwing submerged vegetation from the water onto the nest site or pulling it from the water while sitting on the nest. Material continues to be added to the nest throughout incubation. Nearly two feet in diameter, a nest can take a week or so to build. Successful nests (those that produce chicks) are often re-used from year to year.

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Baltimore Orioles Building Nests

6-13-14  b.oriole nestOnce the female Baltimore Oriole has selected her mate, she chooses a nesting site within his territory, often the tip of a slender outer tree branch, as it’s relatively inaccessible to predators. The female usually builds the nest by herself, taking 4 – 15 days to complete it. The first few fibers are wrapped loosely around branches. With apparently random poking, knots and tangles are created in these fibers. The female than adds more fibers, one at a time, to extend, close and line the nest. Somewhat miraculously, after days of laborious work, the nest takes on its gourd-like shape. Initially the weaving of fibers from plants such as grasses, milkweed stems or grapevine bark can be observed (horse hair, twine and synthetic fibers are also used). Towards the end, when the nest lining is added, the bird is hidden inside the nest and all that’s visible is the periodic bulging of the nest where she is applying softer material (often cottonwood or willow seed fluff, milkweed seed plumes or feathers) to cushion her eggs and nestlings.

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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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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.)

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