Tiptoeing Among the Nesting Sites
By Dave Anderson
Walking amid clouds of mosquitoes, a brown bird suddenly flushes from underfoot in thick vegetation near a wooded trail. I stop still, draw a bead on the exact spot where the bird originated and step lightly. Somewhere near my feet is a hidden nest with a small clutch of speckled eggs or potentially a brood of chicks either naked and pink or bright-eyed and blinking while cloaked in tiny pin-feathers. If I look carefully amid ferns and fallen leaves, I may find their elegant little woven cup of grass and pine needles tucked near the base of a tree, a fallen log or stump – right on the ground.
Early summer is the tail end of nesting season for breeding birds in the forests of New Hampshire. The earliest arrivals of April and May are likely done with their first brood by late June and their chicks have begun to fledge. Later nesters of May and June are still occupied with tiny nestlings.
The most common ground-nesters in the forest include the Wood thrush, Hermit thrush and Veery and a loud little warbler called the “Ovenbird” which sings an incessant “Teacher, teacher, teacher.” Its nest looks like a tiny Dutch oven tucked against the base of a tree – hence the name.
Many bird species nest on the ground.
Along more mountainous hiking trails, you may locate the ground nests of Northern Juncos, a ground nester which prefers sub-alpine habitats that tend to remain too chilly until June for rearing young.
In the granite caves and crevices favored by porcupines for winter dens, huge black turkey vultures nest on the ground creating a humble scrape in the earth rather than building a nest.
Common open meadow ground-nesting birds of remaining farmlands and backyards are various sparrows. Meadowlarks and Bobolinks favor hay meadows and pastures. The Killdeer in the Plover family nests in gravel near open fields or in cities and suburbs on flat gravel rooftops.
Cowbirds also favor farmland but they don’t even bother to build nests or raise their own chicks. Instead, cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of other birds and let unwitting surrogate parents raise their offspring. It’s an adaptation that formerly allowed cowbirds to follow wandering herds of bison across the Great Plains.
Game birds - ruffed grouse and turkey - also nest in a depression on the ground. Unlike songbirds, game birds have precocious young born fully-feathered like chickens, able to run within hours after hatching to escape predators. A gamebird hen will often sound an alarm call causing camouflaged grouse chicks or young turkey poults to freeze in place while she attempts to lead a predator or person away from the vicinity of her brood, often while squawking and feigning an injury – the old “broken wing” trick.
In the past several weeks, I’ve nearly stumbled upon several nests and discovered broods of fuzzy, buff-brown ruffed grouse chicks perfectly camouflaged and motionless at my feet. Once you spy a chick, the others seem to emerge around it - stock still and seen only by the shiny glint of a tiny beak or beady black eye amid the fallen leaves. Turkey chicks are larger then grouse. The hen turkey more likely to intervene and create a diversion to save poults. The best thing to do is leave the area quickly and allow a hen to recover her brood. If hiking with a canine, grab your dog and quickly move out of the area to avoid scattering the chicks. When you return to a remembered nest site in July it will likely reveal the empty nest that has successfully fledged chicks.
The more vulnerable songbird chicks are born naked – devoid of feathers. Although a nest may appear abandoned, parent birds remain nearby – watching and waiting to reclaim the nest. Resist temptation to touch eggs or young birds and leave the area quickly to allow a songbird to incubate its eggs or brood its young. Human scent can attract curious nocturnal predators such as a raccoon, skunk or fisher to the vicinity of a ground nest.
Another primary threat to survival of spring chicks is any prolonged period of cold or rainy weather. In the May floods of 2006, huge numbers of nests failed statewide. While some birds re-nested last June with late broods born in July, others skipped the second attempt. This year conditions are more favorable for nesting success with plenty of flying insect protein to feed a growing family.
There has to be some silver lining for mosquitoes and deerflies right? If not for the great spring and summer abundance of biting insects including blackflies, mosquitoes, gnats, midges and deerflies, we’d hear far fewer birdsongs in the New Hampshire woods.
Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached through the Forest Society website at www.forestsociety.org.
Forest Journal appears in the Lifestyles section of the New Hampshire Sunday News and online at NH.com