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A couple of months ago I posted about the vernal equinox and the arrival of spring as heralded by the return of the swallows to the marine lab. This spring I've been keeping an eye on the mud nests that have been going up under the eaves of one of the buildings. It seemed to me that the swallows were a bit slow getting started with the nest-building, but in the past handful of weeks they've gotten more serious about it and have started raising babies.

When the birds are flying, it's pretty easy to distinguish between barn swallows and cliff swallows because barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) have a very deeply forked tail.

Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight
Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight

Cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), on the other hand, have a more trapezoidal tail that is not forked:

Cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in flight
Cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in flight

This spring both species nested together under the eave of the Younger Building. When the birds' little heads are peeking out of the nest you can't see the tail (obviously) so it's harder to tell the species apart, especially when the parents are away. Turns out the species' nests have different shapes: barn swallows have nests that are described as "cup-shaped" while cliff swallows' nests are gourd-shaped. I'd read this description before but didn't really understand the distinction; this year it was pretty easy to tell the difference between the two.

In my case, the nests look like this:Swallow nests, LMLI like how the nests are just crammed in together. Most of these are cliff swallow nests, but the right-most three are barn swallow nests. That's a barn swallow flying directly towards the camera. I've seen as many as four babies peeking out of that second-from-the-right barn swallow nest. They've obviously fledged, as quite often all the nests are empty, but they will return to the nest as long as the parents keep feeding them.

Here's a closer view of the two types of nest:

Two cliff swallow nest (left) and one barn swallow nest (right)
Two cliff swallow nests (left) and one barn swallow nest (right)

As recently as this past week I saw parents sticking additional dabs of mud on the nests. Perhaps there will be a second brood once these fledglings leave for good?

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The astronomical onset of spring is the vernal equinox, which this year occurred on Thursday 20 March 2014. The date is determined by the movements of the Earth and the sun, and occurs regardless of weather conditions anywhere on the planet. Some people look to plants for an indication of spring: the first day that a crocus pops up through the snow, or the first blossoms on a cherry tree. For me, I know that spring has sprung when certain birds show up in my world.

The first red-winged blackbirds make themselves heard in January, which is too early to be thinking about spring but at that point in the year it's nice to be reminded that the days are getting longer. The red-wingeds' calls are heard throughout February and March; it always makes me smile to hear them lekking. Some time in March I see the first barn swallows at the marine lab, and once they start plastering mud under the eaves I know that spring is here.

A few years ago the swallows chose a site sort of under a stairway to build their nest. They started plastering mud in a corner of the wall and constructed a neat little home in which to raise their young. That year they raised four babies successfully.

At this point they're the same size as their parents.
At this point they're the same size as their parents.

The parents were still feeding them, but the babies almost didn't fit into the nest anymore. It was so cute. I'd walk under them to get to the door and they'd all pivot their heads down to look at me.

The parents were pretty blase about people walking under their nest all day:

The parentsIt was up to us to make sure we didn't get pooped on. Sometimes you'd have to dodge the splat.

Once the babies fledge and start feeding themselves, we get barn swallows swooping around the courtyard. They seem to be more active in the afternoons, when the wind picks up. They look like they're having so much fun, zooming around like miniature 737s.

I bet it's fun to be a swallow in the springtime.

 

We are fortunate to have a lot of wildlife in our backyard, which is actually a canyon. On any given day we can look out and see finches and hummingbirds squabbling over their respective feeders, jays trying to steal whatever they can, and hawks either swooping through the brush or soaring overhead. The soundtrack of afternoons around here is punctuated by the sharp high-pitched "teek" of towhees and the chickadees can be heard just about any time of day. And every once in a while a mockingbird tricks me into thinking that I'm hearing something that I'm not.

Among our favorite birds is our state bird, Callipepla californica, or the California quail.

California quail male (left) and female (right)
California quail male (left) and female (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In our canyon we have quail year-round, and we call them collectively the "dudes." The males, with their typically gaudy male plumage, are the dudes and the females are dudettes. In the winter, the quail form a covey of anywhere from 15-25 adults of both sexes, banding together for safety.

Males (dudes) in a winter covey
Males (dudes) in a winter covey

Once the days begin to lengthen in the spring, however, the males begin squabbling for territory and females, and the covey breaks up. After that we see the quail in male-female pairs. Interestingly, the pairs will forage in more or less the same area, but when one of the males crosses some invisible (to me) line the other will get all bent out of shape. Females seem to forage wherever they want.

Nesting occurs in the bushes somewhere, and in July we see the babies for the first time. Usually it's the dads who bring out the dudelets; I think the females may be incubating a second clutch of eggs at this time.

Needless to say, the dudelets are very cute. The youngest we've ever seen were little speckled fluffballs. It's hard to see in this photo, but at this age the dudelets already have tiny plumes.

Dudes and dudelets
Dudes and dudelets

Like most baby birds, the dudelets grow fast. After a couple of weeks they've grown more feathers and begin to look more like their parents. This year (2013) we missed the fluffball stage and today we saw the dudelets for the first time. They were brought up by both parents; we saw two males, one female, and 4-5 dudelets. It's hard to get an exact count because these birds are so good at melting into the shrubs and becoming invisible. Even though there was a dudette present, it was the dudes that were watching over the dudelets.

Watchful dude and two dudelets
Watchful dude and two dudelets

Eventually the dudelets will grow up and the males will have to disperse to find and defend their own territories. The winter covey will re-form, and next spring we will be on the lookout again for the next generation.

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We are still about a few days away from the vernal equinox, but it is impossible to mistake the signs of spring:  Trees are blooming (gesundheit!), bees are buzzing, and birds are singing. In our canyon, the California quail have disbanded their large winter covey and are foraging in male-female pairs. In the past few weeks I've watched and listened to red-shouldered hawks claiming their territory. All that I'm waiting for is the return of the downy woodpeckers drumming on the utility poles and the arrival of mud-carrying swallows at the marine lab to know that spring has truly sprung.

One of my favorite spring sights--and sounds!--is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). They are in California year-round, but their raucous mating displays make them much more visible in springtime.

Male red-winged blackbird in display posture
Male red-winged blackbird in display posture

Male red-wingeds are a glossy black with puffy red epaulettes, which they flash as they are calling. This time of year it is common to see a bird perched on the end of a twig, showing off his shoulders and his loud, clear voice.

Here's what it sounds like: Call of red-winged blackbird

The conspicuous markings and piercing call serve to advertise a male's territorial claim. He states very emphatically, "This is my patch of rushes, so BACK OFF, DUDES!"  If he is successful in holding off interlopers, a male may mate with several females within his territory. This is a Good Thing, no? Females benefit from this arrangement because a male who can stake out and defend a territory is presumably vigorous and will pass those healthy alleles to his offspring. So it's a win-win situation and the best possible baby blackbirds are produced every generation.

Sexual selection in action!  Gotta love it!

Sometimes even a naturalist gets to go on vacation, and I was fortunate enough to get to spend a week in Kaua'i.  My favorite spot on the island was the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of the island, where I got to see albatrosses, frigatebirds, and boobies in flight, as well as humpback whales breaching and flipper-slapping offshore.  Amazing!

As much fun as it was to watch all these birds flying around, it was just as entertaining to drive through the adjacent neighborhood and watch albatrosses in people's front yards.  I'd love to have albatrosses in my front yard, but alas, it's not going to happen in California.

Just what are those albatrosses doing in people's front yards, you ask.  Good question.

The Laysan albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, is a north Pacific species which breeds primarily in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Like all seabirds, their food comes from the ocean.  Albatrosses are known for their super-efficient gliding flight; their long, narrow wings are the inspiration for the design of gliding planes.  The Laysan albatross has a wingspan of 6-7 feet.  On the ground they look somewhat like ordinary gulls, but in flight and close-up they are truly magnificent birds.

Albatrosses are also extremely long-lived birds.  The bird in the photograph below has a band on her right leg.  The information on the band tells biologists when the bird was banded.  This female bird was 60 years old when she was photographed at Midway Atoll in 2011 by John Klavitter of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Laysan_albatross_fws_age60in2011

It turns out that albatrosses return to the sites where they hatched as they get old enough to breed.  The Kaua'i albatrosses had been using the north shore of the island as a breeding ground when the housing developments were built, and apparently don't mind either the construction or the people living there.  The human residents take great pride in their avian neighbors, putting up signs telling tourists to keep their distance and leave the birds undisturbed.

We made several passes through the neighborhood to look at the albatrosses, and finally got some good pictures.

Albatross in someone's front yard in Princeville, Kaua'i
Albatross in someone's front yard in Princeville, Kaua'i
A trio of Laysan albatrosses on a beautifully manicured lawn.
A trio of Laysan albatrosses on a beautifully manicured lawn.
Laysan albatross right next to the driveway!
Laysan albatross right next to the driveway!

Some of the albatrosses on lawns are incubating eggs, and some are juveniles hanging out and scoping out future mating possibilities.  If all goes well, albatrosses will be nesting in and fledging from this neighborhood for many decades to come.

The best thing about where we live is that all we have to do is walk to the edge of the back deck and we're looking down into wild-ish nature.  I say "wild-ish" because while it is one of the natural arroyos common on the central California coast, there is a utilities access road at the bottom of it that is used by lots of pedestrians, cyclists, dogs, and the occasional municipal employees in a city truck.  But in the early mornings I feel that I have the entire canyon to myself, since most sensible people aren't awake at the crack of dawn on a regular basis.

This morning I was playing with some little birds when I remembered that the first spring we lived here I was able to "catch" a chickadee and a juvenile finch.  By "catch" I mean "persuade to come feed from my hand," not actually put into a cage or anything.  Chestnut-backed chickadees and both purple and house finches are year-round residents that readily come to our seed feeders.  We have a core group of 3-5 chickadees that visit us daily; the number varies from season to season.  Chickadees are vocal and friendly.  For little birds, they're surprisingly tame.

Back to our first spring here.  The chickadees are easy to watch.  They aren't afraid of people and come right up to us as they flit between feeders and bushes.  I started hanging out on the deck with some seeds in my hand and, sure enough, soon one little guy was brave enough to trust me:

My little chickadee!

Yep, that's a wild bird perched on my hand.  This is the only picture we managed to catch, although he was a repeat visitor through the summer.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to see a new (to us) bird at a feeder.  Our neighbor also has seed feeders and a hummingbird feeder, and two years ago we saw this handsome fellow:

A very studly male rose-breasted grosbeak

Plus, we get to look down on birds in flight.  How cool is that?  More on our avian neighbors in another post.

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Every spring the barn swallows return to the marine lab, not exactly on the first day of spring as in San Juan Capistrano, but I always know it's really spring when they arrive.  They build their mud nests against the eaves of the buildings, and spend time chattering at us from the fences.

However, the swallows don't always choose the best location for their nests.  About two weeks ago a pair of swallows were determined to build their nest here:

Not a good place to build a nest.

The poor birds would build up a small pile of mud, only to get all twitterpated and bent out of shape whenever anybody walked out the door, which is every few minutes.  I'm not sure if the proto-nests fell down by themselves or were hosed off, but it took the birds about a week to take the hint.

Then they decided to build the nest here, which makes a lot more sense:

A much better site for a nest.

Doesn't the little guy (or gal) look pretty satisfied up there?  This site is farther away from any doors and is on a building that people don't go into or out of nearly as frequently, so the swallows should be able to raise and fledge their young successfully.

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