We have experienced the effects of global warming recently, with some days in the upper 80s while others turn chill and windy. It is an exciting time in nature, as birds begin their reproductive cycles.
We watch a pair of killdeers mate on a bare grassy slope, after the male performs a little rhythmic dance on tall, slender legs. The male will create gravel scrapes in the ground near one another, to confuse predators, before choosing the actual nest site. This is then camouflaged for protection with small rocks and straw, and the eggs will be tan, splotched with dark brown. Both parents take turns sitting. If the area is disturbed, the bird leaves the nest and goes into a “broken wing” act away from the eggs, to distract the intruder. They have startling black,white, and tan coloration, but during the display, hidden underfeathers shimmer bright orange. It is remarkable that they are so often successful with this minimalist nest on the ground. Hatchlings will leave the nest soon after birth.
At a visit to the Mt. Auburn cemetery, all is quiet. By chance, we spot two northern yellow-shafted flickers on a bare tree together. An unusual sighting. They sport a spotted body, black bib, red cap, and those stunning hidden yellow feathers under wings and tail. The male is distinguished by his black moustache. They face off on a branch, moving closer and closer to one another, as one dips its head and then the other, in response, over and over again. They repeat this subtle mating behavior, as one bird adds a shake and shimmy with its wing feathers. They stay on this tree, hopping from branch to branch, displaying, for at least 20 minutes before flying off together, possibly to complete their springtime ritual out of sight. Their nest will be high in a tree hole; later we will see open beaks protruding from the opening.
We begin to see a variety of avian species pair off and display territorial behavior. In a high swans’ nest on a tiny peninsula in a cove, both parents take turns incubating the eggs. We see a pool of white in that large nest, while the mate patrols the area close by, feeding on underwater vegetation. These birds mate for life. Other water birds are seen mating in the river — swans, geese, ducks — and we look forward to enjoying the clutches when their eggs hatch.
Our local eagles build a substantial nest, and females call out in a soft, high-pitched tone when ready to mate. The male also has a unique mating call. As in all nature watching, we feel lucky to witness the almost fierce mating behavior of these magnificent birds.
Falcons mate on precarious tall rock faces, creating a nest in a crevice. One day I spot a grackle on a branch, and in my binoculars note its mating call is simultaneous with a strong wing flap! The call is particularly raucous, and although these shining, iridescent birds are common spring arrivals, I had never seen this behavior before.
Citizen science is one of the best indicators of bird and animal behavior, as these are eyewitness accounts. In some areas, wildlife associations have given cameras to folks so they can capture a particular species’ behavior. We tend to anthropomorphize animal behavior quite naturally; we can surmise, but cannot understand how another creature thinks.
This season, one can just look up and see various types of birds trailing nesting materials as they fly. One warm day my neighbor trimmed her little white fluffy dog outside, and soon after, the local house sparrows began to drift down to collect the clippings, appearing to sort through and find just the right ones.
There are a great variety of nests, some skimpy like the great horned owl nest — found left over by another species, kept as is, not refurbished — while some are elaborately constructed, like the Baltimore oriole nest, a woven basket hanging from a thin branchlet atop a tall tree. One year a pair of ospreys built their unwieldy stick nest on top of a light fixture at a NH mall, successfully raising two offspring in the midst of cars and people coming and going. I happened to discover another osprey nest on a cell tower and had the amazing opportunity of watching the parent teach the last young bird how to fly! Serendipity plays a large part in our observations.
In Concord, near the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I discovered a group of great blue heron nests, in tall dead trees in a swampy area. Each held one large juvenile, and they apparently were the last to fledge and manage on their own. A parent came to quickly feed one and flew off into the distance. I have seen quite a few ‘hangers-on’ of different species, including a large male swan still following its parents into the season of an icy river. The female parent was nonplussed, but the male made various attempts at pushing the offspring away, rather gently, to no avail.
In Indonesia, the bower bird is known for its spectacular, architectural nest. Each bird builds a large, unique structure, decorated with local findings. Sir David Attenborough, world renowned naturalist, and the BBC, filmed these birds working to attract a mate. While the male can be stunning, the females are mostly a dull brown, but in great demand. One male stood atop his nest singing, while a female watched but did not respond. He did attract another female, and during their very brief mating, a competitor chose his moment to steal a gorgeous accoutrement from the nest, when he knew the owner was preoccupied!
Spring is an exciting time of year in New England, when we experience renewal and rebirth, rejuvenation and freedom.