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Indigo Buntings: Full Circle

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Regular readers of this blog know that there is nothing, nothing, nothing that pleases me more than being able to tell the whole story. No matter how many days, weeks, months or years may come between the inception (Piper's arriving in April 2012, staking claim to the yard in July, singing on the farm bell, Mrs. Piper's building a nest on July 30, the incubation of her eggs and eventual hatch of two young on August 14, their growth and fledging on Day 10, August 24)...and the satisfying conclusion of the story. Sometimes you don't get that satisfying conclusion. Sometimes you luck out and you do. (I'm thinking of Shelly the box turtle, who came back a whole year later; I'm thinking of the gray tree frog eggs that finally became froglets; I'm thinking of the rose gentian that finally bloomed, two years later; I'm remembering Garrett the red-headed woodpecker and that magical winter (s)he spent with us...will she come back in 2012?)

 The trick is being there for it, watching for it, being ready for  the moment. So when Bill and I, doing some morning tower birding, spotted Mrs. Piper accompanied by two begging fledglings way out in the prairie patch in the sideyard, I went on high alert. Got a lot of photos of them as hopeless dark dots. It was September 9, 2012, and the babies, not seen since they were a rather reptilian 10 days old, would now be 26 days old. Ohhhh I wanted a photo of one of those little reptiles, transformed into a bird. But they wouldn't come any closer, and I was loath to break up the family breakfast by walking closer. Eventually it was time for me to head downstairs. Bill stayed up in the tower awhile longer. And shouted down, "ZICK! They've moved to the north border! Look in the sassafrases!"

And there were two newly minted indigo buntings. Oh my goodness. What a difference two weeks make.

I stood glued up against the trunk of my Japanese maple, hiding under its canopy, and shot as Mrs. Piper came in with a grasshopper. Oh glory be. 

Full circle.

As I write this, it's September 18. Yesterday morning, a male indigo bunting rose up out of the Pipers' prairie patch and gave a brief but indescribably sweet flight song, something I hadn't heard since late July, when Mrs. Piper was winding up to build her nest. It was early morning and the light was bad but I grabbed Bill's binoculars from his car and dashed around to get up-light of the bird. He'd landed in Piper's favorite cherry tree. Could it be Piper??

I didn't have my camera with me, but I was able to make out a bird with a blue head, brown back and chest, white belly, and blue wings and tail. Wow. If that's Piper, he's done some serious molting since I saw him last. 

As I stood amazed, Mrs. Piper and the two bairns flew up from the prairie patch to join the bird in  Piper's cherry. They chipped and talked and goofed around, flying little loops, for all the world like a family reunited. Holy cow. Talk about full circle! 

But it's never safe to assume. So I wrote my Molt Guru, Bob Mulvihill. 

Dear Bob, I'm launching in on a day-by-day photo story of the lives of the indigo buntings that nested in our yard. Want to ask your opinion on something. The male, Piper, who's featured in today's blogpost, made himself very scarce when his mate started incubation. I actually think he left the territory; he didn't come in for daily baths and didn't sing. I thought I might have seen him farther out the meadow. The two chicks fledged and are still being fed by the female in the yard and vicinity on Day 35, which is a bit of a surprise to me; hadn't thought they'd feed their fledglings quite that long after they left the nest. Now, yesterday morning, I saw and heard a male indigo give a flight song on Piper's territory, and land in "his" cherry. The female and young were with him. The light was terrible but I managed to maneuver uplight of him and he seemed to be a patchwork male, with brown on chest and back, some blue on wings and head. Would that be Piper? Do full adult males go into an eclipse molt and go back to brown for winter? 
Both babies are still completely in pale brown, so I know it wasn't one of them.  Thanks so much. JZ

Bob wrote me right back: 

Yes, Piper would almost certainly be starting his prebasic molt by now, replacing his bright blue "alternate" or breeding plumage with brown "basic" or winter plumage.  And, he likely will get browner day-by-day.  But, he will still have some nice blue highlights here and there even when his prebasic (= post-breeding) molt is finished.  I'll send you a couple of pics if I can find some for comparison.

This bird was photographed on October 2, 2003, at Powdermill Banding Station in western Pennsylvania. 

For a glimpse of just what cool stuff Bob gets to see and share, check this link to Powdermill's website. 

An earlier stage of molt, the brown basic plumage just starting to come in. I saw streaks of brown running down Piper's blue breast.

And that top photo of the brown, blue-winged male bunting is pretty much exactly what Piper looked like. To see him there reunited with his mate and two offspring, well, that was a fine moment. As I write, on September 18, she's still feeding them on Day 35. Bits and pieces, put together. That's how you get a picture of a bird. 

Thanks to Bob Mulvihill, whose email signature includes this:

"It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."

--sign over the work table of a man named Jeno, who was a master cabinet maker at Boswell Lumber in Somerset Co., PA in the 1970s, and who unfailingly dropped whatever he was doing to help a young boy turn rough drawings of his latest idea for a custom bird feeder or nest box into well-fitting pieces that could be assembled into the real thing!


Wow, I just read through all the indigo bunting blogs. Gives me goosebumps. What a treat for you to be able to photograph this full circle. Thanks, as usual, for sharing this touch of nature! And for your spot-on writing talent.

Magical, just magical!

Kathy in Delray Beach

Misty-eyed and shouting "Yes!"

Wow thats wonderful Thanks Zick!
Are you then saying that these birds could mate for life? That would be unusual yes?

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