As summer grows long in the tooth and the fresh green leaves of spring begin to display ragged edges, single brooded birds are in their final stages of parenting. For them, the proof of the season is a successful crop of young. There is little or no time for a “do over” at this point. There were three active families performing this role about the grounds at Dollar Lake over the past few weeks and their activities made things interesting. Not being a permanent resident of the place, my observations were separated by long periods of time – which means I was privy only to the middle of each story.
I am not sure, for instance, when the animated pair of Black-capped Chickadees excavated their nest cavity in the birch snag down at lake’s edge. I can only say that they did this at least two weeks before I found them. It takes around 13 days for the eggs to hatch and these birds were already feeding young. The hole was located about 7 feet up near the top of the broken trunk. Since the tree has been long dead, the punky wood made it easy for the “dees” to peck out their hole. It seems an impossible task for such a small billed bird, but a chickadee is a chickado when it comes to cavity creating.
Both parents participated in the feeding and care of their chicks. I never saw the babies, hidden as they were deep within their lair, but can only imagine a full clutch (the average is 7) of hungry mouths were within. Both adult birds maintained a constant stream of caterpillars, moths, and other insects to fill those mouths – popping in for less than 20 seconds before emerging for another food hunt. The trips were spaced about 5 minutes apart and this was all day -every day over the four day period I was about the place.
The first successful picture I took of this activity revealed a parent, which had entered with a beak-full of food, exiting with a bag of poop. Better called a fecal sac, this white blob represents the excrement from one of the young. Urine and feces are contained within a white mucous bag, in the manner of a diaper, and the parents dutifully grab it and deposit someplace far from the nest. This, of course, keeps the nest clean and tidy. In the early stages each baby might put out a dozen of these per day which means a full nest of poopers would generate 60 or more of these offerings daily. Some species actually make a habit of eating this bag (what parents won’t do for their kids). I am not sure if Chickadees do this, but can say that at least on this occasion the bird flew off and dropped it.
Only passerines and woodpeckers do the fecal sac thing – others allow their young to let the poo fly over the edge of the nest. Fortunately (or should I say unfortunately) I did not witness the fecal sacking of the local pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers were already feeding full sized young by the time I crossed paths with them on my next northern visit.
Young red-heads, although matching their parents in size, lack the red head and stark black and white patterning of the adults. They are gray-headed, pale-billed, and sport a checkerboard pattern on the white portion of the wings. Traveling from tree to tree, the adults searched for insects as the young birds shadowed them. A symphony of mewing ensued whenever parent and young came together and just before the tidbit was deposited in the young woodpecker’s mouth.
Again, not seeing the earlier stages, I would suspect that the young were approaching their final week of parenting (this takes about one month). Although they probably milked this pandering for another week before the adults gradually put an end to it.
I saw both Red-headed parent birds in action, but only spotted one young at any given time (they were spread out through the canopy). In my final observation of this blog, that being of Pied billed Grebes, I only saw one young with one parent over the course of several weeks.
Earlier in the season, a breeding pair of Grebes constantly made their presence known through eerie vocalizations. Their nest, a floating pad of vegetation, was located somewhere among the cat-tails on the opposite side of the lake. Throughout the day, from early morning to sundown, the male repeatedly wailed with a cuckoo-like “kwop, kwop, kwop” call before his female finally told him to shut the heck up!
A Pied-billed Grebe, accompanied by a single large chick, started showing up close to our dock about a month after the nesting commenced. These birds were silent and shy in the extreme. Because both sexes look alike, and both participate in feeding young, I couldn’t tell which parent was present at any given time. But I can say that only one was present whenever I saw them. The adult would dive under and retrieve water insects and tiny fish to offer to the eager grebe-let. The kid often scrambled about in confusion whenever the adult vanished and eventually took to diving in order to keep up.
Young grebes are startlingly different from their parents. Instead of the somber pale brown, and “pied” beak of the adult the chicks are marked with brown and cream striping which is especially prominent on the head and neck. Patches of rusty red, combined with a pink bill, throw in a bit of color lacking in the final version of the bird. This pattern, found also in coots and gallinules, likely acts like the disruptive painting used on WWI troop ships (we copied nature in this case). It obscures the bird’s outline and makes it harder for the enemy to get a bead on it.
All of this leads me to one stark fact about the apparent lack of success on the part of the Dollar Lake Grebes. A normal clutch would contain 5-7 eggs and a like number of young. Only one chick apparently survived this year. It was being well cared for and would probably make it to full Pied bill status by late summer, but I was left wondering about the fate of its nest mates.
Early one foggy late July morning, after watching the grebes do their thing, my attention was drawn down to a movement under the water lily pads at dockside. A huge snapping turtle poked his head out from under one of the pads, eyed me suspiciously, and then slid beneath the still surface. Having seen this well fed reptile I believe we can answer the mystery of the missing grebe chicks. Disruptive colors do not help when the enemy comes at you from the deep.