Inside Bethpage Nest Boxes

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On a recent visit to Bethpage State Park, I went with Kathy Wegman, a retired environmental horticulturist, as she checked bluebird and tree swallow nest boxes.

Bluebirds
At the first bluebird nest box, a brightly colored male on it flies and seconds later so does a pale female. While we waited to see one or the other appear, what appeared to be a red-tailed hawk flying over the fairway, was actually a drone. Welcome to the 21st century. While Kathy checks some other boxes, I remain in a golf cart 30-feet from the nest box. It serves as a blind to view parents’ comings and goings as well as protection from errant golf balls for which I seem to be a magnet.

The mother comes back, but vanishes like an apparition. Waiting for adult bluebirds to deliver food is boring and has me anxious about whether they will show up. In the span of the next hour I have three parent bluebird sightings at roughly 15-minute intervals. The father is a bright blue and rust, easy to see and takes a juicy caterpillar into the nest box hole. The mother is a pale tan and blue and quite hard to see. Right in front of me a golfer whacks an errant ball. I crave action but not this kind.

Tree Swallows
We go to a nest box for house wrens, which are diminutive 4.75-inch pale brown birds, but Kathy doesn’t open it because doing so would mean taking out the nest. Wrens sometimes puncture the eggs of other birds and fill the nests of in their territory with sticks rendering them unusable. There victims here could be tree swallows and bluebirds. This is the first year that the wrens moved into the box which before had been taken over by those two species.
To open a nest box and peer into it is to look into a mysterious birth chamber where featherless week old nestlings huddle together. It’s a small sanctum into which one can look only for a short time without disturbing the nestlings or parent birds. In the first bluebird nest box, the nestlings appear to be a dark small mass. In another bluebird box that has 10 days old nestlings, one has a hungry yellow mouth open. In another nest box the nestlings reminded me of tiny embryonic dinosaurs. In a bluebird nest box it’s exciting to see week old nestlings beginning to show color.

Feathers surround tree swallow eggs in a nest box.
Feathers surround
tree swallow eggs in
a nest box.

Then one of the nest boxes leaves a more vivid impression. At a tree swallow nest box well off the fairway, Kathy says that she “smells death.” Inside is a mother tree swallow, in mourning, sitting on a dead nestling. The sadness is palpable. Kathy dons gloves and soothingly talks to the bird as she lifts it out of the nest. The 0.7-ounce bird snaps into the air like a thick rubber band disappearing past a tree. Blow flies killed the nestlings here by laying their larvae inside due to the box being defective. Kathy probably saved the mother’s life. Minutes later the bird seems to be back at a now open and empty nest box. It bothers Kathy, but I don’t have the empathy for the bird that she does. My wish for the mom is that she gets over her grieving, gets emotionally healthy and lays another clutch of eggs.

At another tree swallow box that is also off the beaten path, a brown thrasher flies over some hedges and a male redwing blackbird disappears into a tree after showing us its flashing yellow and red epaulets. Kathy checks the box, which has a trio of six to seven days old nestlings. As tree swallows fly nearby, she says that the mom will be back after we close it to check on her brood. Sure enough as we back away, a midnight blue tree swallow comes to the box, goes into the hole and within a minute appears again. She does this twice. It’s one thing to intellectually understand that there’s a maternal instinct in birds, but observing it in the field at these two nest boxes leaves an emotional impression.

An Egg Mystery
One nest box contains a mystery. It has four diminutive white tree swallow eggs and two reddish brown eggs. Kathy thinks that the brown ones are wren eggs. From the placement of the eggs it’s not possible to determine which set of eggs came first. Did wrens come first and perhaps abandon the box when tree swallows moved in? Kathy wonders if the brown eggs could be brown-headed cowbird eggs. Cowbirds are parasites that leave their eggs in with those of other birds attempting to trick them into incubating the eggs. As we leave I’m thinking about the array of white feathers around the eggs, especially their height. It suggests to me that the last birds in the box were tree swallows whose breast and belly feathers are white. Later, Kathy checks the data and emails me that the wren eggs came first. Mystery solved.

Looking at three of my images from one tree swallow nest box on the computer makes me sit in intense silence. They are images of five tree swallow eggs and feathers. The placement of the feathers around the eggs is exquisite while an almost sepia tone-like color illuminates everything. This is accidental art. While standing on a step ladder, I put my camera in the right place at the right moment without realizing it. Real art lies in those nest boxes and the life contained therein. I hope to do this again. A word of caution is necessary here. I went solely because I was able to go with an experienced retired supervisor who monitored these boxes. Birds, eggs and nests are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act and citizens should not monitor/investigate/disturb nests without proper training.

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Michael Givant, who writes our Bird’s Eye View column, resides in Woodbury and teaches a film course at Farmingdale State College in the Institute For Learning In Retirement and a foreign film class at The Longboat Key Education Center in Florida.

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