Songbird Journeys

For those of us who appreciate songbirds, September is the saddest month. That’s when most of them start their long journeys south. Gone are the songs of spring and early summer, the raising of youngsters, even, in some cases, their bright spring colors.

A yellow-rumped warbler in winter plumage photographed at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, South Florida, Feb. 7, 2016

A yellow-rumped warbler in winter plumage photographed at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, South Florida, Feb. 7, 2016 (Photo by Don Burkett on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A few songbirds, such as eastern towhees and yellow-rumped warblers, migrate no farther than the southern United States. Others head for Mexico and Central America. Still others spend their winters in the Amazon basin—Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador—of South America.

Despite a century or more of migration studies by ornithologists and citizen scientists, using bird-banding, radar images, and even small airplanes, as well as on the ground field work both here and on the wintering grounds, much more research needs to be done, especially here late in the summer, when most songbirds moult, during their fall migration, and on their wintering grounds.

Recently, Bridget Stutchbury and her team at the Hemlock Hill Biological Research Area in northwest Crawford County have pioneered the use of geolocators to track long-distant songbird migrations of purple martins and wood thrushes.

A Kirtland’s warbler with a geolocator mounted on its rump

A Kirtland’s warbler with a geolocator mounted on its rump (Photo by Dan Elbert/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Weighing a mere 1.5 grams—that of a dime—a geolocator is carried on a bird like a backpack and is looped around the bird’s legs. Because a geolocator can detect light levels, it is able to show the cycles of sunrise and sunset so that during good weather, a bird’s geographical location can be calculated by the timing of sunrise and sunset in that area.

Working with the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s main colony in Edinboro, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2007, Stutchbury and her associates spent two mornings attaching geolocators to the birds. The martins seemed undisturbed by their “backpacks” and continued feeding and raising their offspring.

On August 31 one of the female martins flew south on the way to her Brazilian wintering grounds. In five days she made it across the Gulf of Mexico to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula—1,440 miles. By the 13th of October, she had arrived at Manaus, Brazil and spent the winter in the Amazonian rainforest. She left Brazil on April 12 and was back in Edinboro at her breeding colony on 25th of April flying 4,200 miles in 13 days.

A purple martin taken at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin, June 28, 2009

A purple martin taken at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin, June 28, 2009 (Photo by Dori in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Five days later Emily Pifer of the Purple Martin Conservation Association found that female with her geolocator still attached and, as Stutchbury wrote in her book The Bird Detective, “Emily was looking at the first migratory songbird, anywhere in the world, for whom we would know its arrival time on the wintering grounds, where it had spent the winter, and how quickly it had come home.”

Later a second female martin arrived with her geolocator and the following year three more were recovered. All indicated the same fast flight over the Gulf of Mexico from northwest Pennsylvania and similar arrival times in Brazil, in which they took more than a month migrating through Central and northern South America.

But all five of their martins averaged 23 days from Brazil to Pennsylvania in the spring, flying about 180 miles a day, thus proving that spring migration is faster than fall’s, most likely because the birds are eager to claim breeding territories and mates.

A wood thrush on its breeding ground in Chester County, PA, June 20, 2010

A wood thrush on its breeding ground in Chester County, PA, June 20, 2010 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Stutchbury also put geolocators on 47 adult wood thrushes in 2007 and 2008 because their numbers are declining probably due to deforestation both on their breeding and wintering grounds. In two years, they retrieved 14 wood thrushes with geolocators. They learned from them that wood thrush fall migration, mostly to Honduras and Nicaragua, is relatively slow and the arrival time varied from mid-October to early December. They too mostly crossed the Gulf of Mexico, especially in the spring when they flew on average 2,160 miles in two weeks.

However, one female did not cross the Gulf, and instead she flew an extra 600 miles overland, arriving much later on her nesting grounds. Why she did this is anyone’s guess, although Stutchbury wondered if she had left her wintering territory in poor condition and hadn’t the strength to cross the Gulf.

Stutchbury further questioned if wood thrushes that double-brooded and thus moulted their feathers late in the summer, would postpone their migration and subsequently arrive too late to acquire territory on their wintering grounds. But she learned through her geolocator-wearing wood thrushes that even though the late moulting birds crossed later into the tropics, they did not arrive later on their winter territories, contrary to the expectations of Stutchbury and her associates.

In a paper they wrote for the Proceedings of the Royal Society B they concluded, “We suggest the possibility that some individuals prepare to migrate more rapidly than others by investing more heavily in fat storage during the early stages of moult.”

A veery photographed in Chester County, PA, on June 2, 2011

A veery photographed in Chester County, PA, on June 2, 2011 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Other researchers have taken up the challenges and rewards of geolocators including Christopher M. Heckscher and associates of Delaware State University who attached geolocators on 24 veeries in White Clay Creek State Park in Delaware near the southeastern Pennsylvania border. Like the purple martins, veeries also migrate to the tropical forests of South America.

While they wanted to find out whether each veery spent its winter in two different areas in southern Brazil as another ornithologist had proposed, they also wished to discover veeries’ migration routes and timing. Furthermore, in a paper in The Auk, they wrote, “Building on the work of Stutchbury et al…” they wanted “to determine whether geolocator technology can successfully track a terrestrial forest-dwelling songbird from its North American breeding site through dense tropical forests of equatorial South America where day length and night length are equal.”

They proved that point by tracking the veeries to multiple wintering sites first south of the Amazon River in Brazil at five separate locations from November 2 to December 2 and then to second wintering sites as far north as Venezuela and as far south as east-central Bolivia with the other three in widely separated areas in Brazil. They suspect that the “predictable seasonal flooding of lowland forests in Amazonia may be the ultimate factor that prompted the Veeries to relocate.”

From those five birds they “documented three different migratory routes between South and North America and three different routes from the Gulf Coast to Delaware.” And like Stutchbury’s purple martins and wood thrushes, veeries took their time going south but left their wintering grounds in mid-April and returned to Delaware in 17 days.

A gray catbird in Washington, D.C.

A gray catbird in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Steve in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still another geolocator study, this one of gray catbirds, was by Thomas B. Ryder et al. of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institution’s Migratory Bird Center. They pointed out that although geolocators can estimate longitude fairly accurately, latitudinal error can be large—108 miles for purple martins and between 132 and 192 miles for wood thrushes. For this reason, they used both geolocators and bird-banding records “to estimate the migratory connectivity of breeding and nonbreeding populations of Gray Catbirds,” according to their paper in The Auk.

In July of 2009 they put 22 geolocators on gray catbirds in two forest parks near Washington, D.C. These birds left their breeding territory in late August and early September and arrived on wintering grounds in south Florida or Cuba in mid-October. They left those grounds in April and arrived back in the D.C. area in early to mid-May.

Looking at recovered bird-banding data that showed Midwestern gray catbirds overwintered exclusively in Central America and our birds from the mid-Atlantic overwintered in Florida and the Caribbean and combining it with their geolocator studies, they concluded that their research “underscores the importance of geolocators, as well as other tools, to advance our understanding of migratory connectivity.”

A common cuckoo

A common cuckoo (Photo by Ron Knight in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

With all this research and much more both here and in Europe using geolocators, bird migration is proving to be more complex and varied than we could have imagined. A recent study of the European common cuckoo using geolocators found them 600 miles away from their usual departure area in northern Europe. Then each cuckoo flew by itself back to its normal route and on to its wintering grounds in central Africa.

In an interview with a National Wildlife reporter, researcher Mikkel Willemoes said that, “They [cuckoos] evaluate their own conditions and adjust their reactions to it, displaying a complicated behavior that we were able to document for the first time in migratory birds.”

He concluded that, “This tells us that bird migration in general is far more complex than previously assumed”—a point we can ponder as we watch our songbirds head south, knowing that only an estimated half of them will survive their migratory journeys and return to us next spring.

Watch a video of Dr. Bridget Stutchbury and associates at the Purple Martin Conservation Association attaching geolocators to purple martins before they set out on their fall migration from Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania.

Chimney Swifts

Think of them as “flying cigars,” one of several descriptive nicknames for birds first named “American swifts” by early naturalists and later in the nineteenth century renamed chimney swifts. Their short, bluish-black bodies with silver gray throats and squared-off tails flutter bat-like through the air on long, scythe-shaped wings. “Bows and arrows,” another nickname, can best be imagined when they are flying high in the sky, their wings shaped like bows and their bodies like arrows.

A chimney swift flying overhead

A chimney swift flying overhead (Photo by Dominic Sherony in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still other nicknames for these flying insect predators are “chimney sweeps” and “chimney swallows.” Like swallows, they rarely alight, but when they do, they cannot perch. They can only cling to vertical rough surfaces even though they have the three toes forward and one toe (hallux) backward of songbirds. But unlike songbirds, chimney swifts can shift their hallux forward to grip the insides of hollow trees in old-growth forests where once they nested and roosted before the arrival of European settlers.

Those settlers quickly cut large trees to build houses with chimneys, and the displaced swifts found new, abundant nesting and roosting sites. Instead of what scientists think were once birds thinly-distributed throughout the eastern forests of North America, chimney swifts became an abundant species that spread as settlers moved into the Great Plains states east of the Rockies from Saskatchewan in Canada south to Texas.

In addition to home chimneys, they have roosted in abandoned large industrial chimneys, stacks, incinerators or air shafts and nested in old wells, abandoned cisterns, outhouses, garages, silos, barns, boathouses, lighthouses, and firewood sheds. Although they probably still nest occasionally in large hollow trees, most notably in abandoned pileated woodpecker nest trees, what were once wilderness birds are now almost solely birds of towns and cities.

I will embed a brief YouTube video showing thousands of chimney swifts flying into an industrial chimney in Gainesville, Florida.

On our mountaintop property in west central Pennsylvania, I rarely see them until the second week in May, yet birders in cities and towns report them as early as mid-April. Widely distributed in every Pennsylvania county, their highest densities occur in Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre and especially Pittsburgh’s industrial river corridors, according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania.

Usually, I first see them in spring in the sky above First Field seining the air for insects. They can scoop up dozens of tiny insects at a time. Their wings beat so fast that many observers once thought they were flapping their wings alternately, which is not aerodynamically possible and was disproved by stroboscopic photography in 1950.

Althea Sherman (left) and her sister Amerlia show Althea’s chimney swift tower to visiting schoolchildren

Althea Sherman (left) and her sister Amerlia show Althea’s chimney swift tower to visiting schoolchildren (Photo from my book Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists, p. 206; courtesy of Fred Pierce)

Because they spend the daylight hours airborne and their nights in chimneys, researchers have had a difficult time observing their lives. But one woman, Althea Sherman of National, Iowa, designed and had a chimney swift tower built in her backyard. Beginning in 1918, Sherman, who had been watching and writing about birds for decades, spent her arthritic old age (65 to 83) climbing the tower stairs and watching the birds through special windows that allowed her a view from bottom to top of the 28 foot-high tower as the swifts built their nests and raised their young. She also spent many nights with a lighted lamp watching them at rest and proved that they never feed their young then.

Since Sherman’s research, other ornithologists have pieced together the lives of these amazing birds. Once they return to their nesting sites, they engage in trio-flying, which consists of one female and two males following each other and calling as they fly around buildings and trees and then ascend high in the sky where they fly horizontally.

Another display seen all season, which probably helps them keep their monogamous pair bond, consists of one flying behind the other, when the rear bird suddenly snaps its wings upward to form an acute angle.

A chimney swift gripping the wall of a chimney above its nest

A chimney swift gripping the wall of a chimney above its nest (Image by unknown photographer in Birds and Nature n.s. v.2 June-Dec 1905, from Wikimedia, in the public domain)

They return year after year to the same mate and nesting place as Sherman discovered. Both parents construct the nest by breaking off twigs from branches with their feet as they fly, carrying them back to the nest site, and sticking them in place with glutinous saliva they produce from enlarged salivary glands. At eight to 12 twigs a day, it takes them a week to construct a half-moon nest on the side of the chimney strong enough to hold as many as six white eggs.

Both parents incubate the eggs, and the incubating parent waits until the foraging parent returns before leaving the eggs to forage. After an average of 19 days, the eggs hatch, and again both parents brood their naked young and forage for food.

Paul and Georgean Kyle, authors of Chimney Swifts: America’s Mysterious Birds Above the Fireplace, have been watching and rearing chimney swifts since 1983 and write that hatchlings are so active the parent brooding them “appears to be atop a popcorn popper.” When the nestlings settle down to sleep at night one will utter soft, single notes, a monotonous lullaby“me-me-me,” as it sleeps.

An adult chimney swift feeding its nestlings

An adult chimney swift feeding its nestlings (Photo by the U.S. National Park Service at Isle Royale National Park, in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

For the first week, parents feed each nestling with a slurry of insect body parts and saliva which they regurgitate into their offspring. Then they start feeding one nestling at a time with a bolus containing dozens of insects. They also allow helpers at the nest to assist them. Usually they are the previous year’s offspring and more often males than females. They will roost with the family at night and may even help incubate the eggs and brood the nestlings.

Many chimney swifts don’t breed every year and while only one breeding pair will occupy a single chimney, they may be joined by roosting unmated birds. Chimney swifts are intensely sociable, feeding together, skimming lakes and rivers for water together, and even flying over each other’s nest chimney and looking inside. The Kyles have seen the brooding parent move aside as if to show off the hatchlings to those stalling over their chimney.

At 19 days of age, the nestlings begin perching on the wall beside their nest and practicing flying. When they are 28 days old, they fly out of the chimney, although they return to roost with their parents and siblings for one to two weeks. As soon as they fledge, they feed themselves the gnats, mosquitoes, flies, winged ants, termites and other airborne insects they find.

Chimney swifts roosting communally in a chimney in Missouri on October 4, 2010

Chimney swifts roosting communally in a chimney in Missouri on October 4, 2010 (Photo by Greg Schechter in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

In Pennsylvania they most often nest in June. Migrants begin appearing in the commonwealth by mid-August, and in early September form large communal roosts. Alert observers near such roosts can watch in the evening as swifts, sometimes numbering in the thousands, swirl around the entrance of a commercial chimney before suddenly flying down it at dusk.

Although they may remain as late as early October, most start migrating along our ridges in loose flocks in September, stopping each night in another chimney as they head south. Eventually, they fly over the Gulf of Mexico and then overland to reach their wintering grounds in Peru, northern Chile, and northwest Brazil.

According to the 2014 State of the Birds2014 State of the Birds “Common Birds in Steep Decline,” chimney swifts have lost more than half their global population in 40 years. The North American Breeding Bird Survey reports a 65% decline and estimates a population of 7.8 million. In Pennsylvania we’ve noted a 27% decline between the first and second breeding bird atlasing projects, so in 2005 the chimney swift was listed as a species of Maintenance Concern in our Wildlife Action Plan.

A pair of chimney swifts flying over a park in Miami

A pair of chimney swifts flying over a park in Miami (Photo by Brandon Trentler in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Researchers aren’t certain why their numbers are declining. One reason may be the loss of masonry and clay chimneys and the capping of chimneys leading to “habitat loss.”

In 2012 a study found that aerial insectivores have experienced guild-wide population declines throughout North America.

Calvin L. Cink, one of two authors of The Birds of North America chimney swift account, writes that the “total impact of temperature extremes and heavy rains…appear to be important for this species.” Furthermore, in a study he did he proved that high summer temperatures for extended periods can kill entire broods. In summary, he concludes that the decline is likely due to changes in prey abundance, chimney numbers, and weather as well as unknown threats during migration and on the wintering grounds.

A chimney swift tower erected in the Brumley Forest Nature Preserve near Hillsborough, N.C.

A chimney swift tower erected in the Brumley Forest Nature Preserve near Hillsborough, N.C. (Photo by bobistraveling on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

To help chimney swifts, the Kyles designed and built a variety of towers to attract chimney swifts and other folks have followed the directions in their book. Most of the towers have attracted the birds as soon as they are constructed.

Here in Pennsylvania, for instance, the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania has been building and installing chimney swift towers as part of their Chimney Swift Conservation Program. In addition to constructing them on their Beechwood Farms property, they have partnered with the Allegheny County Parks Foundation to build them in all nine county parks. As of July 2016, they’ve constructed 22 towers in North Park and are starting to build them in South Park.

Cink and his co-author Charles T. Collins also urge that “nest and roost trees (large diameter, hollow trees) should be identified and preserved in old-growth stands of forest,” so that the birds can use their precolonial nesting places.

I enjoy watching them on humid August days and evenings as they fly over First Field, scooping up insects in company with barn swallows and preparing for their long migration south to another continent, and I hope that we can provide enough safe places for them to nest so that the sight of thousands flying down to roost in a large chimney will not become a memory of the past.

I’ll close with a fascinating video of three young chimney swifts being fed by a parent bird.

Living with Bears Redux

Most summer evenings after the heat of the day has faded, I walk Butterfly Loop. This trail encircles a portion of our 37-acre meadow we call First Field.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Often I’m treated to a stunning sunset, and always I hear and see songbirds that prefer a meadow of forbs or the edge of a wooded ridge.

Sometimes I glimpse a herd of deer before they see me and run off. Once I watched a raccoon set out for the evening along the edge of First Field, and several times I’ve encountered a porcupine grazing on the grasses.

On my July birthday last year I had made a note of the abundant ripe huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way near the Short Circuit Trail and had stood in the cool morning eating them by the handfuls.

That evening, on Butterfly Loop, I scanned the right-of-way with my binoculars. To my surprise, I spotted a large black bear doing exactly what I had done in the morning—picking and eating huckleberries.

A black bear eating huckleberries

A black bear eating huckleberries (Photo by Harvey Barrison in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Although bears are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat almost anything, more than 80% of their diet is vegetable matter—grasses and weeds in the spring, wild berries in the summer and nut species in the fall. They are especially fond of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries.

On my birthday evening, I was pleased to see a bear without it seeing or scenting me and to watch it for half an hour as it moved methodically from patch to patch, peacefully harvesting huckleberries by using its paws to hold the bushes while it broke off berries with its teeth.

Sometimes I could see its face and what appeared to be a single silver disk in the middle of each ear, but I was too far away to tell if they were ear tags. Finally, it disappeared into the taller brush.

We’ve been living with bears for almost four decades, but that was one of the few times I had a chance to observe a bear without it detecting me. Often I’ve turned around on trails when I’ve seen a bear in the distance before it sees me or I step into the underbrush and wait for it to pass. But if it’s too close, I have to stand my ground.

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

For instance, late last May, as I ambled along Laurel Ridge Trail on my morning walk, a large black sow emerged from the right side of the forest at the top of a steep incline. I expected her to cross the trail, but instead, she turned and started toward me, followed by her yearling cub.

I froze in place and considered my options. She was less than 100 feet away and moving quickly so turning around didn’t seem like a good idea. Because nearly always, talking to wild animals scares them away, first I said quietly, “You don’t want to come this way.”

The bears paused and then haltingly continued moving forward. Next I clapped my hands, a maneuver I had never tried before, and immediately the sow turned and ran into the woods on the left side of the trail.

A bear mother with her yearling cub

A bear mother with her yearling cub (Photo by beingmyelf on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the cub still hesitated until I clapped my hands again. Then it ran after the sow, and I proceeded on my way, surprised to realize that after numerous peaceful encounters with bears, I didn’t even have an elevated heartbeat.

A week later on the first of June, my husband, Bruce, went for a walk in the foggy dawn and saw a bear on Laurel Ridge. During my walk, I found many fresh scratches on the Laurel Ridge power pole, reminding me of a time, many Junes ago, when I heard and then watched a boar raking a power pole with his claws and then turning and rubbing his back against it. This was another case where the bear didn’t see or scent me even though I was only 50 feet away from him.

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Researchers still aren’t certain why black bears do this, but tree or, in our case, pole-marking behavior does occur more often during the June breeding season. However, Bruce once watched a bear shredding a power pole near the Short Circuit Trail in August. And the power poles atop Sapsucker Ridge have even more claw marks, administered throughout the year, than those on Laurel Ridge. Because of this, I’m more inclined to consider them message poles that inform other bears of their size and presence.

Lynn Rogers, who has been studying black bears in Minnesota for decades, found that most of his radio-collared tree-markers were male bears. Right after they marked a tree, Rogers was able to smell their scent on the tree. Since bears have a much stronger sense of smell than we do, Rogers thought that bears could smell the trees long after they had been marked. Perhaps, he theorized, such trees may warn males that other males are near so they can avoid fights.

Bears mating

Bears mating (Photo by the North American Bear Center on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

There’s no doubt that male bears are excited during mating season. The only time I was chased by a bear was when a male apparently mistook me for a sow. I had been sitting quietly in First Field near some shrubs when I heard a bear and stood up. As I started walking around the shrubs, I realized the bear was close behind me. Again I turned around and spoke to him. He stopped short, wheeled around, and headed off to find a female of his own species.

By the time females are in estrous, they have chased off their yearlings. Two weeks after I encountered sow and cub, first Bruce saw a yearling streaking across Greenbrier Trail near its confluence with Bird Count Trail and later our son Dave saw what was probably the same yearling still running straight out, this time across Ten Springs Trail. Probably either the sow or her paramour were chasing her persistent cub away.

Female yearlings will stay in the sow’s territory, researchers have found, but male cubs have to leave the area and try to find a place that has no bears. Male territories are larger than those of females and usually include two or more females. Territory and range size vary depending on food sources.

Bears of both sexes have been known to wander off their ranges for miles in search of food, especially in autumn when the acorn and/or beechnut crops fail because they rely on the high fat content of those foods to put on weight before winter.

Last summer our berry crops were huge, especially blackberries, and we picked over 50 quarts. Our lowbush blueberry crop was poor; our huckleberry crop adequate. Later, the black cherry crop was also poor, the wild grape crop average, and the acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts scant.

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds (Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We didn’t have any other bear encounters, but I did find piles of bear scat filled with berry seeds and later with corn, presumably from the valley farms. Unlike bears in wilderness areas, our bears can depend on cultivated crops if the wild ones fail. Here in Pennsylvania, there are many sources of food from farms and forests—carrion from domestic as well as wild animals and fresh insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and even new born fawns.

As the years have passed, we’ve had our behavior shaped by bear appetites. When we heard a bear overturn the garbage can with what we thought was a tight lid to cover itself with sunflower seed, we put the bird feeder cans in our basement. When we were awakened another night by a bear emptying our washed recycled cans, also in clean garbage cans, we put them in the basement.

We bring in our bird feeders every night during November, most of December, March and early April and then retire them until the following fall. And since a sow with her cubs broke through our kitchen screen door two years ago and was climbing in when we sent her off one summer night, we close all doors and windows in our kitchen in the evening, no matter how stifling the weather.

But even that sacrifice is worth it to live with bears. Here is a video of a bear family filmed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Watcher at the Nest

Last April our son Dave, my husband Bruce, and caretakers Troy and Paula spotted a male pileated woodpecker excavating a nest hole in a 60-foot-high, barkless elm snag. At first I wasn’t interested. I had often seen pileateds working on nest holes, and they had never amounted to anything, because pileateds had been making one of several nest starts before settling on a final one.

A male pileated woodpecker feeding on a tree

A male pileated woodpecker feeding on a tree (Photo by Joshlaymon on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

But by April 21 the male pileated was still working on the nest. That’s when I decided to spend some quality time watching the nest builder.

The elm snag was in Margaret’s Woods, several hundred feet away from our caretakers’ home and a few hundred feet from the tree where Dave and Rachel had watched a pileated nest in 2012. The snag was typical of many pileated nest trees but the habitat was unusual. Margaret’s Woods was once an apple orchard and is now a young forest filled with a dense understory of invasive stiltgrass and barberry shrubs. The snag was in an open patch of stiltgrass. Near the edge of the patch, I found a pile of old logs, 30 feet from the nest hole, where I could sit. But since it was a late spring, no vegetation hid me.

A male pileated excavating a hole for a nest

A male pileated excavating a hole for a nest (Photo by Andrea Westmoreland on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The male pileated worked on the nest hole 40 feet high above two other holes, which had been roost holes. While he loosened the wood inside the snag by chipping at it, his long tail outside the snag matched the rhythm of his chipping until not only his head disappeared into the hole, but his upper back too, leaving only his rear end and tail outside the hole.

Then he pulled his head out and tossed several beakfuls of wood chips out of the cavity. He did this twice while I watched through my binoculars and was seemingly undisturbed by my presence.

Another pileated male excavating a nest hole

Another pileated male excavating a nest hole (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

I didn’t always check on the nest during my morning walks. Because it was spring, I had to watch wood frogs on our vernal ponds, search for blooming wildflowers and shrubs, record returning songbirds, and enjoy a host of close encounters with mammals and birds along the nearly ten miles of trails on our square mile of mountain land. But during the last couple days in April and the first of May, whenever one of us walked past the nest tree, the male pileated was sitting in the nest hole peering out.

Throughout the rest of May, none of us saw any action in or near the nest hole. Fooled again, I thought. Maybe the male pileated I saw excavating a hole in a live, leaning chestnut oak tree near our deer exclosure, back on April 24, was the same male and that was an active pileated nest. But it also appeared deserted.

Rachel and Dave saw a young pileated peering out of a hole in Margaret’s Woods, May 2012

Rachel and Dave saw a young pileated peering out of a hole in Margaret’s Woods, May 2012 (Photo by Rachel Rawlins, used with permission)

Then, on June 7, Dave saw a young pileated peering out of the elm snag nest hole in Margaret’s Woods. I was astounded and did some quick calculations based on pileated woodpecker research by ornithologists. Pileated nestlings are known to perch at nest holes when they are 20 to 23 days old. If so, they had hatched around May 18.

Incubation by both parents takes between 14 and 18 days. Most likely, the male had begun incubating the eggs when he had been sitting in the nest hole. Ornithologists also estimate that it takes 23 days to excavate the nest, which meant the whole process had begun around April 9.

A female pileated on an ash tree in North Carolina

A female pileated on an ash tree in North Carolina (Photo by DickDaniels on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Lawrence Kilham, who spent many days watching pileateds, wrote that “Each nest watched was different and many nests, located in quiet woodland, were remarkably free from interference.” He also wrote that “Pileateds…prefer to nest in stubs that are free of old holes,” which can shelter black snakes, gray squirrels, or screech owls, known predators on eggs and young.

Margaret’s Woods was a reasonable quiet woodland, but the elm snag did have those two other holes, proving Kilham’s point that each nest is different and that pileateds are opportunists. Unlike their close relatives, ivory-billed woodpeckers, which required southeastern bottomland forests far from humans, the crow-sized pileateds with bright red crests have adjusted to a wide variety of habitats from the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest to the recovering forests of eastern North America, thriving in coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests.

Late in the afternoon of June 7, I slipped over to the pileated tree and saw a head repeatedly poking out of the nest hole. This time it was a female pileated nestling awaiting the return of her parents. Both feed their young by regurgitation, inserting their bills into the throats of their offspring which suck and jerk their heads as many as four times at once. I could also hear the “churring” noise the nestlings make when they are hungry.

Pileated chicks looking out of a nest cavity in Margaret’s Woods

Pileated chicks looking out of a nest cavity in Margaret’s Woods (Photo by Rachel Rawlins, used with permission)

Because of stormy weather, it wasn’t until three days later that I was able to return to the nest site. I sat on the old log, now partially screened from the nestlings by striped maple and catalpa leaves. At 9:35 a.m. the heads of two youngsters were out of the cavity and repeatedly making rasping noises. The adults “cuk, cukked” and drummed in the distance.

By 10:00, the nestlings were halfway out of the cavity rasping loudly when they heard a parent close by. Finally, the female pileated landed on the side of the nest tree and poked her long bill down each of their throats three times before flying away.

Still the nestlings kept up their begging calls and I was able to distinguish the female nestling from the male. She had a crest that wasn’t as large as the male’s and she lacked the male’s dark red line on the side of his jaw. Both were a bit fuzzy looking, their crests developed but not as erect as their parents’ crests.

A pileated feeding its chicks

A pileated feeding its chicks (Photo by Rachel Rawlins, used with permission)

Nine minutes later an adult called nearby and was answered by another farther away. Then the adult male landed nearby on a dead tree close to the ground already partially stripped of bark and flaked off more in search of carpenter ants and beetle larvae. From there he flew to another leaning dead tree and kept up a chuckling call as he worked around the area. The female was close by, answering the male, while the young never stopped their begging calls, their heads and half their bodies out of the nest hole.

The male flew up and fed only once before flying over to the other side of the snag and then to a nearby tree, chuckling as he worked. I heard a crow and wondered if the male wasn’t staying close to make certain the crows didn’t raid their nest.

At 10:32 the female flew in, landed next to the youngsters and moved her head back and forth as if deciding which of her screaming offspring to feed. Four times she fed the male and never once the female even though she begged as hard as her sibling.

After that, the female nestling disappeared into the cavity, leaving her brother to beg. Once the male parent fed him, he too finally withdrew into the nest cavity, and I continued my walk at 10:52.

A female pileated on a log probing for ants with her long tongue

A female pileated on a log probing for ants with her long tongue (Photo by AndrewBrownsword on Wikipedia, in the public domain)

The following morning I was again watching as both nestlings had their heads out of the nest hole. Then the male withdrew, and the female kept pulling in and out of the cavity, opening and closing her beak and revealing her pointed, barbed tongue which pileateds use to extract ants from wood tunnels.

An adult called nearby, and both youngsters looked around and eventually started their begging calls. He “churred” in one direction and she in another, but no parent appeared.

The next morning both nestlings poked their heads in and out of the nest and “churred.” He also “wuk-wukked” like an adult. His crest was more developed, and he kept pushing down his sibling and dominating the nest hole. It started to rain and I retreated for the day.

A pileated chick ready to fledge

A pileated chick ready to fledge (Photo by Jan Barrett, Seney Natural History Association, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The following morning there was no sign of the female nestling. The male had his head out of the hole and was practicing adult calls. An adult drummed in the distance. Then the male parent flew in fast, fed the youngster twice, flew to a nearby snag, and drummed loudly twice.  The youngster answered with a loud call. They continued the drum and call response between parent and nestling as the parent flew farther away as if trying to lure him from the nest.

Sometimes a parent drummed in response to the nestling; sometimes it “wuk-wukked.” Once I saw the male nestling’s tongue flick in and out fast as if he was eating insects around the nest hole.

That afternoon, Dave saw four pileateds, two parents and two fledglings, in our yard. They had fledged at about 27 days of age and would stay with their parents until September, learning how to obtain their own food. Although the nest cavity was empty, we continued to see them in Margaret’s Woods and in other parts of our forest throughout the summer.

I’ll conclude by embedding a video that Dave took here on June 8, 2010, of a pileated foraging in some trees and a snag not far from his front porch.