Just after the deep freeze event we experienced in February, I began seeing pictures of little families of dead Eastern Bluebirds posted on social media. Apparently, groups of this lovely species, which winters in our area, hold up in nest cavities together, relying upon each other’s body heat to survive. Those that didn’t make it were ultimately found by nest box owners who checked their boxes after the frigid cold snap.
Seeing those images caused me to be hyper-vigilant about listening and looking for this very special species. I will say, again, that it was a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that fledged their chicks from a box we put within sight of my office window that helped me endure a very difficult time of my life. Bluebirds bring me great joy. The idea that the pairs that have made a living and raised their young on our property may have succumbed to winter’s wrath made me heartsick.
Every time I went outdoors, I listened for that charming song. My eyes scanned for their unique flight pattern and a flash of blue color. But, nothing. I looked back to last year’s photos I shot of the pair that had used a box in my office yard for three years in a row. By March 27, 2020 that pair had chosen a box and the female was taking grass into it to build her nest!
When another person posted a photo of dead Bluebirds all huddled together in a nest box – clearly from back in February – my soul ached. I am aware of four couples that fledged baby Bluebirds last year on our property. There may have been more. Late last fall, Robert and I cleaned out all the nest boxes so that they would be ready this Spring for our returning residents. At that time, we also put up four new boxes that met a Bluebird’s needs in hopes that the kin of those birds might come back to our property and raise their chicks. My heart was breaking that they might all be dead.
Yesterday, the weather was sunny but windy. Not perfect, but better than the preceding days of rain (including a Tornado Warning over the weekend.) I ventured out. First, was a trip over to the pond. I found five Blue-winged Teal taking shelter from the wind at the south end of the pond. The first photo shows the group of five birds and a big gathering of painted turtles that are taking advantage of the sun and the windbreak. The second photo is the best quality image I have been able to take of any water fowl that have visited here.
Hungry to find a Bluebird, I decided to observe a box that had been used last year by Bluebirds: number 15. It’s on the eastern fence line in Sham’s Paddock. Although I really wanted to get a good view for a potential photo or two, I decided to stay well away, since my presence was going to be obvious as I sat in the middle of a flat, open pasture. I stopped well over 100 feet from the box and waited. I heard Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds singing. I was able to snap a couple of shots of those birds. The wind gusts were so strong that they were actually moving my camera lens, which I support with a mono-pod as I sit in my golf cart.
I focused my attention on Box #15.
When waiting for wildlife, patience is a virtue. After fifteen minutes, birds arrived. But, they were not Bluebirds. A pair of Tree Swallows were showing significant interest in Box #15.
I was happy and I was sad. I was happy to see another pair of Tree Swallows that might raise their young in one of our boxes. I know of two other pairs that have staked claim to boxes in other areas of our farm. When I was at the pond, I observed at least ten Tree Swallows hunting over the water. They are amazing to watch. Tree Swallows seem to be thriving. I wondered why my precious Bluebirds couldn’t be so lucky.
After dedicating a few minutes checkout out Box #15 as a possible place to build a nest, the Tree Swallows flew off together. The outrageously high winds allowed me the chance to marvel at the aerial acrobatic skills of these little gems. They are truly incredible.
During their absence, I chose to move another twenty feet closer to the box. The birds hadn’t seemed the least bit concerned with my presence. I have found the same tolerance of Bluebirds in the past. They have nested in boxes that are a mere thirty feet from my office patio.
Five minutes later the Tree Swallows returned. But, this time, they had company. Approaching fast from the East, a male Eastern Bluebird flew directly to the box. Here is the activity I was able to catch. I was still quite far away and the wind was affecting my ability to keep the camera still. But, I think you will get the picture!
The Tree Swallows’ flight skills clearly outperform the Bluebird’s ability to maneuver in the wind. But, the Bluebird still won the battle through holding fast his position atop the box. He remained on the box for a few minutes, singing his melody. Then he flew off. I had hoped to see his mate arrive. But, she never showed.
The Tree Swallows returned and continued their evaluation of the box, then departed once again. While they were gone, the Bluebird came back for a second visit. Perched on the box top, he sang his song several times. Eventually, he flew to a tree that is about twenty feet to the south. There, he caught an insect and consumed it. Then he took a position on the highest branch of the tree.
The last images I was able to capture were of the Tree Swallows, when they returned several minutes later. To my human eyes, they seemed to be having a bit of a tiff. But, it may simply be the fact that their vocalizations – which they do quite often when flying together and when near the box – require that their beaks are wide open. To us, that appears to be “shouting” and might suggests “anger.” Perhaps, she was protesting that their curtain rods wouldn’t fit the windows!
Time will tell which species will take advantage of Nest Box #15 on the East side of the Sham’s Paddock. I’m routing for the Bluebirds, but there are many other options for them to choose to rear their next brood. If the boisterous Tree Swallows win the battle for #15, then I will be happy to be able to chronicle their journey as new parents. I’m just thrilled to know that one Bluebird has arrived and I truly hope that means that there are many others to follow.