Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Nature Happens - On A Cell Tower

I have stated repeatedly on this site that I am not a birder, but sometimes birds seem to come to me in bunches.  Whether it's Snowy Owls along the road or Peregrine Falcons on a water tower, I seem to spend a lot of time devoted to looking at, photographing, or writing about birds.  This week it's a pair of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) nesting on a cellular communications tower at the City of Mt. Pleasant Waste Water Treatment Plant.  I was tipped off to this nest by an email from Tammy Bow at the City's Department of Public Works - Tammy and I have corresponded in the past about recycling and she casually mentioned that she liked one of my photos of a Red-tailed Hawk.  (It pays to be nice to people, they will tell you about cool things.)  Her email didn't state that the nest belonged to an Osprey, but I had my suspicions - Osprey are well known for nesting on man-made structures including cell towers.

So with a little time to kill I set out to see an Osprey yesterday morning (24 April 2018).  The Wastewater Treatment plant is located on N. Washington north of Pickard Rd.  As I approached the plant from the east I could easily see one Osprey atop the tower from several hundred yards away.  I did stop on one side street to look at the bird through binoculars.

Eventually I made my way to Washington St. and parked a short distance away from the tower - far enough away to be able to get photographs from a good angle.  It is illegal to disturb nesting birds (as per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918);  I doubt my presence had any impact on this pair.  The nest is located right next to the Waste Water Treatment plant, with people going in and out, and right next to a road with lots of traffic from the City's Street Department.  When I got out of my truck and looked up this is what I saw...

We claim this tower under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act!

Not just one Osprey, but both birds of the pair were perched atop the tower preening their feathers.  Their nest is clearly visible beneath them, supported by the system of braces that hold up the various cellular communications antennas.

And we're preening...

I hung around for a few minutes taking photos, but the drab sky and flat light discouraged me from hanging around too long.  I planned to go back when the sky was blue and the sun was shining.

So back I went this morning (25 April 2018).  Unlike yesterday, only one adult Osprey was visible.  The other bird may have been sitting on the nest or it may have been off hunting.  Like yesterday, this bird preened much of the time I was watching.  It also kept scanning the sky - this made me think that its mate was indeed off hunting.  I stuck around for about 15 minutes, waiting for the second Osprey to appear

Scanning the sky

As so often the case, the Osprey was facing away from me most of the time I was trying to photograph it.

Shaking vigorously is part of preening

The nest can be seen on the upper platform with many sticks fallen to the platform below

A cropped image - note the brown stripe through the eye.  This is one of the keys to identification.

If the nest is successful, I expect the pair to be around for several more months a the young mature.  Also if the nest is successful, it is likely that the pair will be back again next year to nest in the same location.  I look forward to the opportunity to observe this pair more as the year progresses.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A preening hawk

This afternoon as I returned to the office from a school program a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo Jamaicensis) landed on the utility pole closest to the building and began to preen itself.

What is preening and why do birds do it?

Preening is a bird's way of taking care of its feathers.  Birds preen by running their beaks or feet over their feathers.  Birds will preen several times each day to may sure their feathers are in tip-top condition.   Preening has several goals
  • removal of dirt and dust that has accumulated on feathers
  • removal of parasites such as fleas and mites
  • rearrangement/realignment of feathers in relationship to the nearby feathers
  • removing the sheathes from new feathers
  • spreading oil from the uropygial gland to condition and waterproof and waterproof its feathers

 The uropygial gland is located at the base of the tail and requires a bit of contortion to reach.

The whole process of preening seems to require a lot of awkward posing, but without clean feathers a bird would have a hard time flying, staying warm and dry, and staying healthy.  Besides, preening probably just feels good to birds.  It's sort of like scratching an itch!


As a bird preens it will often shake its feathers vigorously before settling them back into place.

This hawk stayed on the utility pole for more than five minutes preening before taking flight.  Within a minute of taking flight it was joined in the air by its mate.  This pair has a nest somewhere nearby - probably in one of several woods located within a half-mile of the District Office.  It is not unusual for me to see one or both of these birds several times each day.  It is rare for me to see one perched for so long.  Usually when one perches nearby it attracts the attention of crows or smaller birds that will mob it until it leaves the area.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Nest Boxes - It's not too late!

On Sunday we noticed  a pair of Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) intently checking out the nesting box located in a tree outside our kitchen window.  One bird would enter the box, stay for a minute or so, and then exit the box.  At this point the other bird of the pair would enter the box and repeat the process.  They went t this for quite some time.  We think they must have found the accommodations to their liking; Shara and I both saw Chickadees entering and exiting the box again on Monday.  

It's not to late to put out a nesting box.  The cold, wet weather seems to have delayed nesting for many species.  I use the plan below for all of my small nesting boxes - I am not sure of the original source of the plan as it is found all over the internet.  They are very easy to construct and can be built in less than an hour even by someone with no woodworking experience. 

One note on construction:  The box outside our window was built specifically for Chickadees so the entrance hole is only 1 1/8 inch diameter.  We live in town and there are lots of House Sparrows - they would quickly take over the box if it had a 1 1/2 hole as shown in the plan below. 


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Upcoming Event - Sacred Seeds Symposium (21 April 2018)

Join me this Saturday (21 April 2018) at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways for the Sacred Seeds Symposium.  This event begins at 8:30AM with breakfast and continues until 5:00PM.  This event will focus on preserving and maintaining tradition crops and foodways of the Anishinabe.  I will be manning a booth at this event and will have free posters, handouts, and information about pollinators (and probably some other stuff).  The Ziibiwing Center is located just east of Mt. Pleasant at 6650 E. Broadway Rd.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The weather we want and the weather we get

By the middle of April, we want our flower gardens at home to look like this...

In reality, this year it looks like this...

The top set of photos is from 22 April 2017; the bottom set is from today (16 April 2018).

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

National Library Week (April 8 - 14, 2018)

It's National Library Week!

Do you notice where the compass arrow is pointing in the picture above?

Libraries have had a huge impact on my growth as a lifelong learner.  I have probably had library cards from a dozen different library systems in my life.  Every member of my family regularly reads books, magazines, and newspapers.  My parents always made sure we went to the public library on a regular basis. 

The most influential library in my life was the Elsie Public Library in Elsie, MI.  I went to the Elsie library from 4th Grade until I graduated high school.  Even in 4th Grade, I mainly checked out books from the adult section of the library.  History was by far my favorite subject; I especially liked the Time-Life series of books that covered World War II, the Civil War, and the Old West. 

The librarian in Elsie at the time was Ms. Orpha Clement.  She would have been in her eighties at the time and was the sweetest lady.  When she finally retired, she moved into the retirement home right next door to the library.  I remember stopping to visit her there one summer when I was home from college.

After high school, I attended college at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago on an Army ROTC scholarship.  I graduated in 1997 with a degree in History.  During my senior year I spent hours not only in IIT's Paul V. Galvin Library, but in libraries across the city of Chicago doing research for my senior thesis.  Even better, this was the early age of the internet and I was able to request books from libraries across the state and even across the country!  Today we take instant access to knowledge for granted, but back then I had to wait days or even weeks for books or articles that today can be accessed in seconds.  I couldn't have survived without the library and its staff.

I don't visit the library as often as I used to.  I have so many books at home to read now - I think I am almost finished with #19 for the year, and am part way through #19 and #20.  Even though libraries don't play as an important part in my life now as they used to, it is entirely possible (probably likely) that I would not be where I am today or who I am today if I had not had access to the public library as a kid.

If you don't have a library card, go get one.  It could change your life!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Native Species Profile - American Robin

American Robin - note brown head and wings, orange chest, and white lower belly

One of the quintessential birds of North America is the American Robin (Turdus migratorius).  This species can be found from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and everywhere in between.  This bird is home in a wide range of habitats from tundra to forest, from urban and suburban areas to farm fields, from coastal plains to mountains.  It is reasonable to think that you could find an American Robin in every US state except Hawaii, in every Canadian province and territory, and in the winter throughout much of Mexico.  The American Robin is the official state bird of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  

The American Robin is named after an unrelated European species.

The American Robin is so common that many field guides use it as a reference size - other birds are often listed as "robin sized".  A large songbird in the Thrush Family, American Robins measure approximately 10 inches long and have a wingspan of 14 -17 inches.  Robins are easily identified by their distinctive coloration.  Robins have grey-brown heads, backs, wings, and tails.  Males often have a darker head than females.  Both sexes have a white ring around their eyes, a streaked throat, and yellow beak.  Their chest and belly are orange or reddish-orange.  Their lower belly and the base of the tail are white.  Young birds often have a streaked or spotted chest and belly.

Overwintering American Robins feed on fruit and berries.
American Robins are migratory.  The arrival of American Robins is often interpreted as a sign of spring.  However, this is only part of the story.  Robins from Alaska, Canada, and the northern United States do tend to migrate south for the winter, but a certain percentage of Robins will choose to remain in northern states throughout the winter months.  Robins are able to do this because of their omnivorous diet.  During the warmer months of the year, their diet consists of large numbers of insects, worms, snails, and other invertebrates supplemented by berries and other fruit.  They are opportunistic feeders; I have personally watched Robins consume large numbers of newly metamorphosed American Toads.  Robins that overwinter in northern states switch to a diet composed almost entirely of fruit - especially important are berries that are high in protein such as those of Red-Osier, Silky, and Grey Dogwood.

Three to five eggs is a typical brood size

American Robins typically reproduce in the spring.  Nesta are made in trees and shrubs or on buildings;  Robins will use nesting shelves placed under the eaves of houses.  Robin nests are tightly formed cups made of small twigs, grass, roots, and occasionally man-made materials such as paper.  The nests are plastered together with mud and lined with fine grasses and moss.  Females normally lay three to five sky-blue or blue-green eggs.  The eggs take approximately two weeks to hatch and the young remain in the nest for another two weeks.  American Robins will sometimes raise as many as three broods in a single year.

A young Robin peaks over the edge of a nest

Basic Information

American Robin
Turdus migratorius

Size: 10" long
         14-17" wingspan

Habitat: fields, lawns, parks, open areas, woodlands,

Eats: insects, worms, snails, other invertebrates, berries, other fruit

Nest: in trees and shrubs, on building and other structures; a cup made of twigs, grass, moss, roots, and mud; 6-8" across and 3-6" high

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Sign of Spring? - American Robin

Every year, someone will call the local newspaper to declare that Spring has arrived - they have seen the first American Robin!

But, is the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) really a good indicator of the arrival of Spring?

The answer is maybe.  It depends on where you live.

Upcoming Event - World Migratory Bird Day Celebration (12 May 2018)

Bineshiyag n'ganawaabmaanaanig! (We watch the Birds!)

Join the Isabella Conservation District, Ziibiwing Center of AnishinabeCulture & Lifeways, and Chippewa Valley Audubon Club on Saturday 12 MAY 2018 for our 7th annual World Migratory Bird Day Celebration.  Begin the day at 9:00AM with a Bird Walk at the Soaring Eagle RV Park (5514 E. Airport Rd, Mt. Pleasant, MI) for a bird walk hosted by the Chippewa Valley Audubon Club.  Later at 1:00PM join us at the Ziibiwing Center (6650 E. Broadway, Mt. Pleasant, MI) for an afternoon of educational activiites, arts and crafts, and give-aways.  Cap the day off with a live raptor presentation by Wings of Wonder from 3:30PM to 4:30PM.  This a great family friendly event!