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Parula Nest!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Parula warblers like to nest in lichens or bromeliads. Up north, they use these lovely pale green Usnea lichens, which are commonly called moss. Down south, they like Tillandsia usnenoides ("looks like Usnea," in Latin), which is a bromeliad related to the pineapple, which is also called Spanish moss. None of them mosses, but there you go. Parulas just tunnel into the hanging “moss” and line a little hollow with grasses and hair and you’d never know there was a nest there at all until you see the parent birds coming and going.

Mostly what we observed was the adults stripping caterpillars from the apple trees several hundred feet away

and ferrying them with great speed to the babies in this well-camoflaged hammock of a nest. 

Over the five days that we were there, the four baby parulas grew up and fledged in stages at the tender age of nine days. It was ridiculous. Meaning, ridiculously observable and very cute. The nest just kind of disintegrated; the adults were feeding and removing fecal sacs from the two nestlings still within via holes that formed in the bottom and sides, while two babies sat outside at the top of the nest.  A little knot of people just stood directly under the nest being completely ignored by the parulas who came and went a few feet over our heads hauling caterpiggles and fecal sacs and going about the business of raising their young. And as I thought about it, I realized that that little knot of people might just have saved the babies from the chickarees, who are brash but shy of being observed.


On the day after fledging when the cottonball parulababes were perched in the vicinity of the now defunct nest, I saw a chickaree dash out to the end of a spruce branch and grab something small and round and dash back to the trunk with it. By the parent parula’s frantic chipping leading up to and surrounding the capture, I knew what that damn squirrel had in its teeth. But I’d like to think that the other three fledglings made it. Sometimes I’m sorry I’ve honed my observational skills to the extent that I have. Mostly, it serves me well, but sometimes I think I pick up a bit too much for my own good.

No, that's not really true. I want to know it all, the good and the bad, the whiskers and the warts. Without the dark, the light wouldn't be so stunning.

This female was removing a very large fecal sac which didn't stop the fledglings' begging for a moment. Or maybe they were yelling, "Take it away! Oh, take it away!"

  Don't get me wrong. I'm not out to smear red squirrels. They're just making a living. But the island was absolutely seething with them, probably thanks to last year's heavy cone crop, and I'd have preferred to see more warblers and vastly fewer predatory climbing rodents. Islands are prone to outbreaks of all kinds of things, since the balance is so delicate and the influx of would-be red squirrel predators is limited, too. I think the island could use a couple fishers, personally. But see, there you go. People are always wanting to mess with island biogeography, because it all seems so easily controllable, and it's anything but.  All you can do is root, root, root for the parulas. And if standing under the nest enjoying them keeps the dang chickarees away, so much the better.

I absolutely love the bold wash of russet on this male parula's breast. Who came up with this color scheme? Whoever it was, I like their aesthetic.

One baby flew out and perched on a minuscule twig coming out of a spruce trunk about 20' away from the nest. That was the last I saw of him. He doubtless moved on from there. 

No, he doesn't really look flightworthy, but such are warbler fledglings. They don't need no stinkin' tail. They just go, little buzzbombs of hunger and potential.

 As the spruce forest on Hog Island reaches climax, the species diversity is falling and birds are fewer and farther between. Which is a bit ironic for a place that hosts birding camps. It's not a problem though, because the place alone is so glorious; island hikes are breathtaking, and what birds are there are so special: nesting merlins, hermit and Swainson's thrushes, brown creepers, winter wrens, black-throated green, myrtle and parula warbler, osprey, common eider, black guillemot. You get the picture. The songs alone undo me. And just over on the mainland is a huge diversity of breeding birds, and five or so miles offshore are breeding Atlantic puffins, razorbills, Arctic, common and roseate terns. Mmmmm. More on some of those in posts to come.


"Sometimes I’m sorry I’ve honed my observational skills to the extent that I have."

My skilz are nowhere near as mad as yours but I get that feeling too! And then, like you, I also feel that I want to know the whole story, no matter what.

Where is Chet when you need him?

So many things to love here: (unsure of proper punctuation here)-- Photos showing how that yellow in the throat flows right up into that bill, phrases like "little buzzbombs of hunger and potential" and "cottonball parulababes". This post makes me so aware of the service the warblers perform gleaning all those caterpillars from the trees.

I know you think facebook may be the demise of the blog, but you could never express all of this in a facebook post. Facebook is best for giving us fans a heads up for these fabulous blog posts!

Kathy in Delray Beach

Posted by Anonymous July 12, 2012 at 9:25 AM

These look surprisingly familiar! My naturalist niece won a scholarship for the bird camp on Hog Island and was there the week before you. She would have loved to meet you but work commitments got in the way and she had to go the week before.

On 4th of July we were treated to a slide show of her photos on my sister's large TV, that included many of the Parula! After having to put my sweet cat Woody down that morning the slide show was a balm for my soul. Everything in her photos were SO lush and green I felt cooler just looking at them.

Ack! That should be WAS so lush and green...

Highlight of my recent trip to Up North, Michigan? I saw my first ever indigo bunting! Gore-juss!

P.S. Kathy- a colon would have been perfect.

(Former English treachery) Mary

That fecal sac-hauling picture with the babies hollering looks like a Julie Zickefoose painting.

My oh my, the clarity and depth of not only camera shots, but insights and observations! Your blog post was a sweet remembering of those 5 amazing days. Thanks!

Want to see a painting of this one!

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