The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough.

Bushtit nest destroyed

Bushtit nest destroyed

Predation

A predator took apart the Bushtit nest that had been so carefully constructed a month earlier. If you look closely at the image above, you might be able to make out a few blue feathers that reveal the likely culprit: a Steller’s Jay.

Potential perp

Potential perp

I was surprised to see eggs still in the nest. I later showed the photo to my natural-history students and asked what they thought had happened here; a couple of them proposed that the tiny Bushtit parents had valiantly fought off the Goliath predator, who fled before eating any of their precious eggs…but not before robbing the eggs of any chance of hatching.

A few days later, when I could finally get back into the park, I knelt on the forest floor below the nest and parted the buttercup leaves. There in the duff were the eggs, two broken, two apparently whole. Again: why had no lucky predator gobbled up these protein-rich delicacies? I lifted the eggs and shell fragments with the lightest touch I could muster. Yet one of the whole eggs broke, its shell crumbling under a whisper, dribbling its clear blood and fluid onto my palm. Using a leaf, I managed to get the last tiny egg whole into a crumpled tissue, along with the fragments, staining it slightly with the remaining traces of liquid; they’re in my freezer awaiting further investigation and appreciation.

2014-5-11-P1100422-Bushtit eggs in hand-Trileigh Tucker

Desolation

Five years ago, in 2009, we had the joy of watching a baby Barred Owl develop from fuzzdom to adulthood. (Click on image for photo collection.)

2009 - Baby Barred Owl in nest box

2009 – Baby Barred Owl in nest box

This year on April 27, perfectly on time for Barred Owl hatching, we found shell fragments beneath their nest box.

Barred Owl eggshell fragments near base of nest tree

Barred Owl eggshell fragments near base of nest tree

Oh, the excitement! The chances for the first baby Barred Owl since 2009 looked pretty good. We got lots of glimpses of the female in the nest, with her husband standing guard nearby.

Female Barred Owl in nest box

Female Barred Owl in nest box

In 2009, the first day I’d observed the baby owl peering over the edge of his nest box was May 15, so we forest fans were watching intently around that time for a fuzzy white head in the box opening.

By mid-May, we began seeing both owls together on nearby branches, meaning no incubation was happening; did that mean a hidden nestling might now be old enough be left alone? Look closely at this photo from May 18 (male on right, female on left) and see if you can find a clue:

Owl couple preening near nest box

Owl couple preening near nest box; male on right, female on left

Take a close look at the female’s lower breast—see the bare area where her feathers are sparse? This is a brood patch: an exposed area of flesh that many birds develop as they’re brooding, so that the eggs or chicks receive warmth directly through their mother’s skin, uninsulated by feathers. Seeing this gave me hope that the nest box held life.

But the next week, I watched at dusk as first one owl then the other left their preening branch and headed not for the box, but for the deep woods for evening hunting; the nest was now completely unguarded. Looks like our Barred Owl parents will have yet another childless year.

Desiccation

While the owl parents had been spending their days at the nest box, the forest had been drying up. As Earth’s tilt toward summer moves the Pacific Northwest out from the influence of the polar front, our trusty winter rain tapers off, and the one ephemeral stream in the park becomes a damp groove in the forest floor. By May 26, the diminishing rains had managed to fill only three small puddles in the entire 135-acre park.

These scarce freshwater ponds were in high demand. A pair of robins took bath after bath, while a series of other applicants pleaded for admission to the public pool. First in was a Spotted Towhee, who was allowed to bathe with the robins.

Robins and towhee bathe in one of last remaining puddles

Robins and towhee (background) bathe in one of last remaining puddles

After the towhee left, a Chestnut-backed Chickadee was turned away, then a Dark-eyed Junco tried to sneak in but gave up in the face of robin protest.

Two days later, the junco had managed to tiptoe back in while the robins were off somewhere.

Dark-eyed Junco finally gets a bath

Dark-eyed Junco sneaks a bath

But it turned out that robins weren’t the real competition that day.

A thirsty Barred Owl eyes the scene

Thirsty Barred Owl eyes the scene

The female Barred Owl was sitting uncharacteristically low in a tree overlooking the puddle, perhaps five feet above my head. She kept gazing longingly at the puddle. Every time she seemed about to descend to it, a dog came along the nearby path, or a passerby walked noisily through the scene, oblivious to our hand signals to shush and walk around. It was Memorial Day, so the park was unusually full of holiday activity. And of course the crows had figured out where the action was, so they were hanging around for the harrassment opportunities.

Finally she found a gap in the traffic: human, canine, corvid. She landed in the puddle, setting up a bow wave that would have knocked over any junco too dense or slow to escape.

Female owl lands in puddle—finally

Female owl lands in puddle—finally

The joy of wet feet!

2014-5-26_1412-Owl playing in puddleAlthough owls typically get sufficient moisture from their prey, I imagined that this expectant mother owl, sitting on her unhatched eggs far longer than she’d planned as she held onto hope, had begun to yearn for a drink or even a bath. Now she might finally have a chance to at least quench her thirst.

Twice, crows dive-bombed her back into the nearby trees. Then at last:

Barred Owl female finally gets a drink

Barred Owl female finally gets a drink.

After a few moments, crows swooped in again, scaring her off without a chance to bathe, but I felt better knowing she’d at least had a few sips of water. A few nights ago I heard both owls calling outside my window; they’re doing fine.

Predation, desolation, destruction: it’s been a hard season in the park. But there’s also plenty of good news and happy surprises, which I’ll share in the next Natural Presence. In the meantime, please be kind; you never know what a creature, or fellow human, may be facing.

* * * * *

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9 responses to “The Fragile Season

  1. What a wonderful story and gorgeous photos! I can’t wait to find out what happens in the next installment!

  2. Truly lovely piece. I love the joy of wet feet 🙂

  3. I first saw your photos on the WSB and was amazed. I am even more so now. It is pure joy to see your blog.

  4. Beautiful, as always.

  5. Pingback: Summer’s Secret Stories | Natural Presence

  6. Pingback: Eyes on the Sparrow | Natural Presence

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