– Bet Zimmerman
Also see PHOTO SLIDE SHOW
On March 5, 2008, we arrived sans luggage at the one-gate Kearney, Nebraska Airport on Wednesday. Kearney (pronounced Carney) is so flat you could stand on a tin can and see the back of your head. There’s nothing to stop the wind. The dearth of trees spawned Arbor Day. Most of the trees we saw were Cottonwood. (The lack of trees was the reason people made houses out of sod. We saw a restored sod house and met a birdwatcher who was actually born in one. )
The conference was hosted by Bluebirds Across Nebraska (BAN – see http://www.bbne.org/) which looks like a very active organization. Conference attendees were greeted by Cheryl and Steve Eno and the Sieberts. More than 300 folks were there – pre-registered attendees came from Alberta, British Columbia, AR, AZ, CO, CT, IA, ID, IL, FL, KS, LA, MD MI, MN, MT, NE, NM, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, TX, WI (plus walk-ins possibly from other areas. Doug and I were apparently the only ones from New England.)
I would say this conference was more oriented towards birdwatchers and entertainment than the San Antonio conference, which focused more on small cavity nesters. Al Batt and Bill Thompson were really entertaining. BTW, I heard the next NABS conference will probably be in Gettysburg, PA, possibly in end of September/early October (wonderful to tour battlegrounds), and 2010 in Portland, Oregon ( a wonderful city with lovely parks and great restaurants!).
Our first solo adventure was to the rails and trails museum, where we saw pictures of the 1733 ranch (of Ripley’s Believe it or not fame, exactly 1733 miles from Boston and San Fran, now a subdivision), and pre-billboard advertising on opera house curtains.
We went for a walk on the city trails which the literature said was scenic with good wildlife watching, but the only wildlife we saw was one squirrel, lots of mosquitoes, and some hulking car carcasses washed up on the shore of the river. Kearney is in a flyway though, and later we saw tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, ducks (canvasback, redhead, buffleheads, golden eyes, scaups, widgins etc.) and snow geese. See our photos, some of which are lame.
- One day we had lunch with Lum and Meriam Bourne of OH, who monitor 346 boxes – it takes them 2 days and 300 miles of travel to each week. (They received a NABS award in 2006). Some years they fledge over 800 bluebirds, and 1000 TRES. His boxes are made of white 4×4 plastic fence post, mounted so they can slide out (like a drawer) for viewing from the top. They can also be raised or lowered (via slots on the side holders) to change the amount of ventilation in the front. He has allowed people to “adopt” a box for $50-75. The adopters name is magic markered on the front of the box, and he takes nest, egg and baby pictures and sends them along to the “parents.” Lum’s daughter mentioned seeing a YouTube video of a vicious starling attack on purple martins (see http://www.sialis.org/video_starling_attack.htm).
- BAN uses a lot of Troyer boxes with a bottom mount, and a modified Gilberston with a thicker floor block that they screw conduit into. Since the modification interferes with door opening, they have reconfigured on a plastic hinge on the bottom of the front door. I purchased a few Troyer’s to try on my trail.
- BAN also sells poles and conduit connectors, as they have found that when people get just a box, 99% of them end up being mounted on a tree or end up in a garage, no matter what you tell them.
- Judy Guinan used to have a trail in AZ, and mounted boxes on trees but never had any predation problems that she knew of (no raccoons there.)
- No one I spoke with has found a box TRES do not prefer… they do seem to really like the Hill Lake design. One person from Oregon mentioned that her bluebird production increased when she removed 20% of boxes used by TRES one year, 20% the next year, etc. At the conference, I picked up a booklet on Mountain Bluebirds that mentions the Bittner box deterring TRES. (See nestbox styles, pros and cons at http://www.sialis.org/nestboxproscons.htm )
- Keith Radel of MN is going to experiment with a thicker, slick PVC Gilberston-style box with a squared off U shaped hole, to see whether House Sparrows have a harder time clinging to the box, and is also thinking of trying 5” PVC. (see more on passive HOSP management at http://www.sialis.org/hosp.htm#passive ).
- Many people are having problems with House Wren predation. (See info on deterring HOWR at http://www.sialis.org/wrens.htm )
- Our birdwatching guide indicated that Black-capped Chickadees have almost disappeared from central NE, but they are not sure why (West Nile virus?)
- The guide also indicated that a great place to buy binoculars is Eagle Optics – they will even send you 2-3 pairs (UPS shipping is free) to try out, and you just pay for the one you chose and keep (and pay for shipping the returns). It’s important to test binoculars for weight, clarity, etc. He was not impressed with Audubon brand binoculars.
- “Bluebirders have a quickness in their step and a twinkle in their eye” (Keith Radel)
- “Bluebirders are what is right about this world.” (Al Batt)
- “I hope bluebirds dance in your soul” (Al Batt)
- “Every one of you is making the world a more beautiful place by pumping bluebirds in it. It is so rewarding for the people around us, who may not even know why there are so many bluebirds.” (Julie Zickefoose)
- If you ask me “why,” I will either tell you what I think or tell you a lie – we usually can’t answer why. (Keanna Leonard)
- Spread the bluebird word! (Greg & Terry Tellier)
- (See more quotes related to bluebirding.)
Nestbox Design, Predator Deterrence and Bluebird’s Winter Diet by Kevin Berner of Richmondville, NY: Berner reviewed the results of research he is doing in Schoharie County, NY. His general recommendation was to experiment, and do what works best for you in your area – don’t blindly follow anyone. (It was hard to take notes during this talk because it was really dark. I felt like I was playing that game where you try to draw a cat with your eyes closes, and the whiskers end up on the cat’s stomach. I hope I get his conclusions correct.)
- Raccoons: Berner experimented with a captive (non-tame) raccoon, putting dog food in various boxes that were mounted in a variety of ways. His conclusions:
- Thick wooden blocks over the entrance hole definitely do NOT deter raccoons.
- Raccoons were able to climb right up a 4” PVC pipe (I think it was not wobbly though.)
- Roof length was key – a roof extending 5” beyond the front of the box did the trick. It also helped keep nests dry, with blowing windstorms and rain.
- Bird Guardians – see my own notes here: http://www.sialis.org/baffle.htm#guardian
- Nestbox and hole styles:
- Starlings can NOT enter a 1 9/16” hole (but what about red squirrels?).
- Starlings struggled but can go in and out (by shimmying) of a Peterson hole, however Berner has only gotten one starling nest ever in a Peterson box, perhaps because the interior is small (that doesn’t mean they won’t predate though.) Although Peterson boxes are heavy, they are successful and widely used in NY.
- Don Stiles of Canada has had quite a few starlings in bigger boxes (e.g., a Gilwood style with a 5×5 floor). Stiles also saw starlings go into a regular Gilwood hole with a bent wire, but they won’t nest in it because they prefer a larger interior.
- Of all boxes tested, the Gilberston PVC box was the LEAST likely to be used by HOSP. No deterrent effect was seen for other boxes (including slot boxes, which are easy to build and don’t require a hole saw).
- The Zuern (tree branch) boxes help avoid predation IF nest is built in the back of the box, but he was never able to get bluebirds to use it. Maybe if no other boxes were available they would.
- Popularity: In terms of # of bluebird attempts, they were in this order: 1) Peterson, 2) PVC, 3) NABS, 4) Slot, 5) Zuern.
- Hole shape and size: Berner then tried to determine the attraction of the Peterson box by separating out variables – was it the hole size, slant roof or wedge shape?
- He found bluebirds preferred (based on # of attempts) a NABS box to a Peterson box if both had oval holes.
- If bluebirds had to pick between a 1 3/8 x 1.25” oval or a standard Peterson oval (1.375″ x 2.250) they preferred the larger oval. Oval was preferred over 1.5” round. In order of preference (based on number of attempts): #1) larger oval, #2) smaller oval, #3) round.
- There was a strong preference for a Gilwood box, with a slight preference for the standard Gilwood hole vs. a 1.5” hole.
- A NABS box with an oval hole was preferred over a Troyer (slot).
- Winter diet: based on what was found in winter roosts, staghorn sumac, nannyberry and poison ivy are common foods. Berner tried germinating seeds in poop, and 95% of what germinated was sumac, but some seeds require special treatment (like stratification) to germinate. Sumac berries persist into winter (and the shrub has lovely fall color), so even though they may not be very nutritious, they probably help bluebirds make it through the winter.
Keeping Bluebirds Safe: Keith Radel of Fairibault, MN gave an enthusiastic talk during which he admitted to making many mistakes when he started out – like putting up 30+ boxes in a 5 acre yard with 1.25” holes. After his first year with no bluebirds, he asked an experienced landlord to take a look at his set up. The man only had three suggestions: 1) put boxes on smooth poles, 2) join a bluebirding society (you don’t need bluebirds nesting first) and 3) the holes were too small and bluebirds couldn’t get in the boxes.
He does not believe in avoiding monitoring during rainy spells, because in MN they can last 22 days, so he opens and checks them 2-3 times a week in bad weather. He said eating earthworms means birds are desperate, and the worms break down fecal sacs which results in fecal glue (see http://www.sialis.org/fecalglue.htm). He saves all his used nests in a 5 gallon bucket, because it’s impossible to find dry grass for a nest replacement after it rains for 22 days. During really bad rain, he may replace nests daily (he lost 60 bluebirds one year).
In Minnesota they have had good luck with boxes with small floors (the only month they’ve never had snow is July), and no vent holes (on average, there are only 13 days a year with temps over 90), and they have had no losses from heat. If a box has vent holes they often plug them, since the mother has to stay on the chicks more to keep them warm and has less time to find food. (See preventing hypothermia, http://www.sialis.org/hypo.htm).
Radel said he likes being part of a bluebird society because you can “rub shoulders with the best bluebirders in the country, and was in awe that there were this many people that want to help a bird. He said when Dick Peterson went to a conference, he never got to have a cup of coffee, eat a cookie or have lunch as he was always barraged with questions. He usually only talked about his box a little, and instead focused n what was in the box.
Personally, he shoots for fledging 5 birds per box, and if a box doesn’t produce in two years, he moves it. Last year he had 63 boxes, 8 of which were singles (the rest were paired) and fledged 701 bluebirds.
Radel recommended following nestbox construction plans exactly, as the inventor probably thought of all the improvements you might try to make.
The Bluebird Recovery Project fledged 22 bluebirds in their first year (1979), and by 1990 they had about 12,000 per year. Numbers took a dive in the 90s (<7500). Radel believes it was because a plethora of unmanaged boxes on trees and wooden posts were put up by people who saw bluebirds in the area and got excited. He is convinced that, as Robert Schuller says “if it is to be, it is up to me” and works with people to take down unmanaged or improperly mounted nestboxes.
Radel does not put any boxes in wetlands (for some reason people think bluebirds like cattails – this is really TRES habitat), and is concerned when someone builds 100 boxes and puts them on the golf course. He recommends starting small, and for those in HOSP-infested areas, starting out in the country, getting some experience and then putting up boxes in town. He feels 4-5 houses are plenty to start. His motto: “If you can’t check them weekly, don’t put them up. If you have them up and can’t check them weekly, take them down.” When talking to people he suggests asking questions (versus lecturing them at length), letting them talk, and talking in third person (So and so, a bluebirding expert, recommends….) Get your nose in with groups of 4-Hers, scouts and sportsman. He encourages scouts to build bird or suet feeders instead, or if they build boxes, to donate them to a trail that will be regularly monitored
He discussed box styles, and noted that “When two people agree on absolutely everything, one of them is unnecessary.” The very best manmade bluebird box is one you look into once a week, and that you want to look into. A box that is hard to monitor is probably not going to be monitored regularly.” He does not like a box with a wooden backboard that sticks up as water seeps in (Note: I caulk those seams with DAP clear exterior caulk), and he likes a top opening box for a better view of chicks. He likes the Gilbertson because it can be readily brought down to a child’s level (it’s hard to lift up 4 kids in a row box after box.) He did not recommend T-posts for mounting. He recommended putting boxes where HOSP aren’t, so you don’t have to spend your life trapping.
He is concerned about Wal-mart boxes (which Jonathan Ridgeway later noted are NOT constructed in a NABS approved manner, despite the label, and NABS is exploring legal options). BAN was selling modified Gilwoods, very nicely made, for 7 bucks, and Troyers for 8, and a pole set up with conduit connector for 4. They were also offering a free box for new members. (Pauline Tom mentioned they got 100 new members after two talks, when offering a free box.)
He makes a hole cover out of a milk jug. Minnesotans are finding House Wrens devastate BCCH nests. He said “When I heard a house wren song, I know something bad is going to happen.” He lost 28 chickadee eggs to HOWR one year (missed one) and has had BCCH young removed by HOWR. (See this video of HOWR removing 1-2 day old bluebird nestings: http://www.sialis.org/videomoore.htm )
Sponsors for the conference were:
- Silver ($1000): George Petrides Wild Bird Centers of America (donated lovely embroidered bags) and Wild Birds Unlimited
- Bronze ($500) Nature’s Way and Prescott Bluebird Recovery Project
- True Blue ($250) Affiliates: California Bluebird Recovery and Virginia Bluebird Society.
NABS Awards (presented by Greg Beavers and Jonathan Ridgeway):
- Mary Janetatos Distinguished Service Award: Jim McLoughlin, Omaha, NE
- Lifetime Achievement Bluebird Conservation Award: Carol LaPres, Muskegon, MI (This woman fledge 1440 Titmice!)
- John and Nora Lane Bluebird Conservation Award:
- Greg & Terry Tellier, Penticton, BC
- Bet Zimmerman, Woodstock Valley, CT
- Individual Bluebird Conservation Award: Tony Doghmen, Norfolk, NE
- Commendable Service in the Field of Bluebird Conservation: Bob Walshaw, Coweta, OK
- Research Award: Judy Guinan, Radford, VA
- Lawrence Zeleny Bluebird Conservation Award: Aldo Leopold Audubon Society
- NABS President Award: Pauline Tom
- Unfortunately I didn’t get the information on the BAN awards!
Jonathan Ridgeway, NABS President at the banquet
A few years ago, NABS membership was 1800 and declining. Now it is in excess of 2000 and growing. Conference calls are held on a monthly basis. He noted that the most valuable thing NABS has is their good name. Their focus is on serving the affiliates (providing meaningful support) vs. competing with them. NABS is solvent, and the Zeleney funding is growing. They have hired a new, extremely well qualified managing editor for the Bluebird journal (he starts AFTER the next edition.) Jim McLoughlin, the webmaster, is setting up a system where affiliates can have their own webspace (especially if they don’t have website) and will be able to post events on a consolidated calendar (which will help get the word out, and avoid scheduling conflicts.) They are working on members only benefits. Jimmy Dodson is now the Chair of the speaker’s bureau. They need someone for the Educational Committee Chair who can provide leadership to update the PowerPoint presentation, materials, etc. for both adults and children, teachers and organizations.
The Cranes: Thursday evening we hung out in a blind to see Sandhill Cranes landing by the thousands in the Platte River. What a racket they made! It seemed to take them forever to decide where to settle down for the night. When they finally landed, Doug thought the whole blind smelled like chicken. The cranes roost/sleep standing in the water so they can hear predators coming. (I think the morning blind experience might have been better, as it was dark by the time the cranes landed near us, but we aren’t real birders, and were unwilling to get up in time to leave at 4:45 a.m.) The majority of their diet (80%) is corn; of which there is plenty here (the price of corn has doubled due to the demand for biodiesel). However, new harvesting equipment leaves less corn behind. Small farms here are being bought up by larger consortiums.
Keanna Leonard, Education Director at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary gave a talk on Sandhill Cranes, with a video running in the background which she annotated. The week we were there, there were probably between 50-90,000 cranes – by St. Patrick’s Day there will be 350,000, all of which will be gone by April 15. Some interesting information she shared:
- Some migrate 6,000-7,000 miles (to Alaska and even Siberia).
- Unlike bluebirds, they lay only two eggs, and start incubating on the first day, so one nestling hatches before the other and often tries to kick the younger sibling out of the nest, which is a depression in the ground lined with grass (Doug’s assessment was “that’s a pretty crappy nest.”)
- During filming, a male Sandhill Crane got agitated and picked up a stone and threw it at the photographer!
- Babies are called colts, females mares and males roans.
- The young grow about 1” per day, and in 2-2.5 mos. are as tall as adults.
- Families of 3 or 4 (depending on whether both chicks survive) stay together.
- The birds “paint” their feathers by wiping clods of reddish clay on themselves (perhaps for mite control/camouflage/to be more attractive.)
- Just before taking off, they lean forward.
- Aggressive behaviors including bowing their head, preening and ruffling their bustle (which is not their tail, but their wing feathers).
- All 15 species of cranes dance – sometimes family dance together.
- As adults, they go bald, and the red part of their head is actually bald flesh, which can be come flushed with blood (e.g., when agitated.)
- They can live a long time (one banded bird was more than 31 years old.)
- Rowe Sanctuary is disking the river to retain this habitat which is key for their migration.
- Cranes are hunted in 9 states.
- The #1 killer of migrating birds is power lines.
- There are about 266 cranes in Ransis (?), NE, but they don’t reveal the location as some people harass them (forcing them to fly off for a better photo op.)
Birdwatching Trip: The next morning required a 5:45 a.m. departure for an 8 hour birding tour led by folks from Rowe Sanctuary. Most of the time was spent on the bus, which was a good thing, since it was 3 degrees when we started out and never got much about 12. The coolest thing we saw was a Great Horned Owl sitting on its eggs (spotted by Kevin Berner) in what was probably a former squirrel’s nest that had been converted to a B &B (with the squirrel probably serving as the breakfast part.) We saw at least 9 eagles, some prairie dogs, thousands of ducks, and tens and thousands of snow geese. Unfortunately we didn’t spy any booming prairie chickens –it must have been too cold for them to get in courting mood – but someone passed around a picture of one.
Julie Zickefoose: Julie Zickefoose gave tips on gardening for a bird-friendly yard. Her booklet, Enjoying Bluebirds More: A Special Publication from Bird Watcher’s Digest, was the first bluebird book I ever bought. It has sold 4 million copies. I didn’t know she used to be a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy. The next day she read lovely essays from her new book, Letters From Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods. Her blog is at www.juliezickefoose.com/blog. Zickefoose has joined the NABS Education Committee. (Note: NABS is looking for a Chair for this committee – please contact Jonathan Ridgeway if you are interested.)
- In contrast to the unenthusiastic and uninspired landscaping you usually see, she said her garden “looks like it was planted by an insane monkey.” She and her husband Bill Thompson (editor of Birdwatcher magazine) have a bizarre house in OH with a giant birding tower, and loads of blooming, hummingbird-attracting plants on 80 acres.
- She recommended threading bamboo skewers through chains of hanging plants to provide perching spots for hummers, planting snags (since birds like an unobstructed perch) and constructing a brush pile each year (although “you have to overhaul your opinion of what is unsightly”), which is a pain to dismantle each year but provides great wildlife cover.
- She cautioned against “friendly abductions” of what people often think is an orphan bird. She noted that open cavity nesters usually leave the vulnerable nest as soon as they can hop. The parents then lead them into dense cover which is safer than clustering in a nest.
- She recommended sumac as a survival food since it lasts into April (regurgitates sumac seed is often found in boxes bluebirds roost in), white birch (late summer seeds, warblers love the caterpillars that eat it), and pokeberry (which she said is a highly valued ornamental in Britain, along with milkweed). She said one guy refrigerates (not freeze) pokeweed berries in moist sawdust, and then pulls it out after all the fruit is gone to feed bluebirds and warblers. She avoids deadheading coneflower so goldfinches can enjoy the seeds, even though it means dialing garden hygiene down a notch. She lops back milkweed in July and finds that monarch caterpillars love the tender re-growth. When Ironweed gets chest high, she cuts it back to the ground and then it blooms lower. She prefers flowering plants like cardinal flowers and salvia to hummingbird feeders.
- When she gets a bully hummer, she places 5-6 feeders within inches of each other, so it’s possible for one bully to defend them all. She uses dried blood to deter deer and rabbits from the garden.
- She only offers bluebirds mealworms during nesting season when it rains for 2 days or more in a row. She decided on this after feeding mealworms all summer and winter, and a bluebird pair produced four broods (the last when they should have been molting) and became concerned about killing them with kindness. She feeds suet (recipe in Bluebirds of Nebraska cookbook and on her blog). She is not a fan of Plexiglas sided feeders since birds may panic.
Bill Thompson on Birdwatching, editor of Birdwatcher’s Digest and author of Birdwatching for Dummies, gave a hilarious talk on the perils and pitfalls of birdwatching.
- He warned that birdwatching will consume and ruin your life, and that you will only be able to think of things with a bird filter. E.g., only buy coffee from growers that do not clear-cut rainforests.
- He referred to the garbage can of birdseed as a “moth farm,” and talked about the “mountain of bird feeding fun” (shells and poop) that is found under a feeder.
- He suggested getting a shoulder harness for your binos, also called a “bro” or “manziere,” (“it can even be worn 18 hours in a row.”)
- He admitted he got a C in an ornithology class he took in college.
- He said a common mistake new birdwatchers is make is to take a quick look at a bird and then grab their guide. Since birds have a habit of taking off, instead he suggested looking as long as you can, and listing two or three memorable things, and then going to the guide. He also suggested keeping your eyes on the bird, and slowly raising the binoculars to your eyes.
- He was on a birding trip, and told some children a bird was at 2:00 and they didn’t know what he was talking about (they are used to digital watches).
- Hunting is on the wane, but birdwatching is on the rise. He felt if birders banded together as a conservation force, they could exert incredible power and influence.
No Child Left Inside (also Bill Thompson). Thompson noted that:
- When we were growing up, there were 3-4 channels, now there are 300+ and the internet and Internet detox camps in Korea.
Budgets for field trips have been cut because schools can’t afford insurance for buses.
- There is a generational shift away from nature, and freestyle play outdoors is discouraged. Kids play baseball for hours on their Wii who have never swung a real bat.
- It is a proven scientific fact that exposure to nature at any level reduces stress. Without it imagination withers, and we can not smell spring. He quoted Burroughs – “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.”
- Biophilia is the urge to affiliate with other forms of life, to connect with essential natural being.
- Roger Tory Peterson said “Birds are the most vivid expression of life” (I looked it up – it was actually the epitaph he chose for his tombstone.) Birds are everywhere (including right in your backyard), and are a good way to get into nature.
- He and Zickefoose have about 40 nestboxes, and teach children that it’s okay to monitor.
- He also noted that nature doesn’t have to be all about granola and tree hugging – bird songs and pictures can be downloaded onto an iPod, and National Geographic makes a computerized “Identiflier.” Try to capture children before they think that whatever their parents are interested in isn’t cool.
- Don’t force it on them – give them binoculars (the Loophole perfect for children, easy to use, 6 power, light, durable, wide field of view $95 – available at Eagle Optics/Cabellas.) Give them a digital camera and an assignment – e.g., take pictures of habitat or let a rambunctious boy lead the hike.
- Take kids outside and see how many birds they can spot in 20 minutes – children’s’ eyes are great.
- If the child’s parents are not interested, you might invite a child along on a birdwatching outing or while you monitor a trail. Teachers usually welcome a speaker with a slide show and bird songs for Friday afternoons.
- Thompson is publishing a The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (already sold out, another printing planned). He worked with a focus group of 8 year olds (his daughter’s class.) The children also helped pick the “wow” facts (like that turkey vultures use puking as a defense mechanism, and puked on a guy who tried to rescue one. He washed his clothes 12x and couldn’t get the smell out, and had to burn them.)
- After getting interested in birds after seeing a snowy owl (his “spark” bird” identified via an old Chester Reed guide) he decided to create a distilled guide of common birds that could spark a child’s interest. He wanted it to be easy and fun to use, small enough to fit in a child’s hand (kids do not want to lug a Sibley guide around),
- Most guides are done by adults of what they think a child wants – e.g., lots of photos and splash. 8 year olds are already transitioning from picture to chapter books and they never go back. They want to read about the lives of birds.
- His guide has big easy to see birds like hawks or great blue herons, (not fall warblers and rare flycatchers), birds children are likely to see and encounter, and some special birds like painted buntings. It is not meant to replace other guides like Sibley, but to boost interest.
- The book is kid-sized, simple and easy to read with photos, and art by Zickefoose. It would also be good for beginning birdwatchers, as it includes a range map, habitat to look for it in, species accounts, and what to look for. It focuses on Eastern species because that is where 80% of sales come from.
- For an additional charge, people can download photos and songs onto an iPod.
– Keith Radel