Mergs depart, Early Arrivals, and the Dreaded Cowbirds

April 15, 2009 | Greg Dodge

I hadn’t seen a Hooded Merganser in the Wetlands since March. On the clear, cool morning of the 10th, there was a lone female swimming circles in the open water of the Wetlands. By mid-morning the bird took flight, circled the Wetlands once and headed off in a northwesterly direction. Will the mergansers return? My records suggest not. The third week in April (now) is four weeks later than these birds were observed last year.

A buteo soaring across the Wetlands on April 4 turned out to be the first-of-the-year Broad-winged Hawk. April is the month when broad-wingeds typically show up in our area after spending the winter in South America.

Both male and female Belted Kingfishers were again seen together in the Wetlands. It was the male that was observed most often, although the female may have been hidden behind the now leafy vegetation in the Wetlands.

It’s confirmed: there are two nesting pairs of Eastern Phoebes on the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop. One nest, as last year, is under the boardwalk on the south side of the Wetlands. The other is on a ledge over a doorway on the back side of the building that houses the vending machines next to the Red Wolf Exhibit.

gd_4_1_09baswAnother bird that spends the winter south of the border (as does Broad-winged Hawk, above) is the Barn Swallow. I spied the first one on April 8, but since then have see several cruise through, the birds often pausing to take a few turns around the Wetlands or Catch the Wind in order to snatch aerial insects out of the air to help fuel their northward journeys.

April 10th was a good day to see swallows at the Museum. Besides several Barn Swallows there were a number of Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows passing through.

A Tufted Titmouse was seen carrying nesting material into a nest hole near the Wetlands Overlook next to the Lemur House. The hole is in a twelve-foot pine snag which stands in the water to the left of the overlook.

I heard a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on the 5th of April but didn’t see one until the 10th when I noticed one of the tiny bundles of energy foraging in the willows adjacent to the Wetlands Overlook. Hopefully I’ll locate a nest this year. Gnatcatchers are boisterous little buggers as they go about their nest-building activities, and it’s often easy to locate the lichen-covered nests by listening for the birds busily chatting away in the trees above. The nests are often completed before the trees are totally leafed out.

gd_4_1_09bhco1A bird that bird watchers love to hate is back in town, the Brown-headed Cowbird. Small groups of these nest parasites were seen chasing each other through the air above Catch the Wind during the first half of April. The female pictured is standing watch over an active Brown-headed Nuthatch’s nest hole. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving the brooding of the eggs and the rearing of the young to the inhabitants of the nest in which those eggs were laid. It’s for that reason that many people dislike cowbirds.

gd_4_1_09bhco2The unfortunate recipient of the cowbird’s egg, or eggs, is usually a much smaller bird than the cowbird, often a warbler. The cowbird that hatches usually muscles its way around the nest taking all the food the surrogate parents bring back to the nest, the rightful nestlings getting very little if any food. I once watched a Worm-eating Warbler bring in caterpillar after caterpillar to a fledgling cowbird (the warbler is about 4.5” while the cowbird is about 6.5” with more bulk). The warbler’s own offspring were nowhere to be seen.

Cowbirds don’t leave our area for the winter but flock together with others of their kind, or with other blackbird species, spending the winters foraging in farm fields and pastures.

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