Phoebes 4: seeing inside the nest

[If you are getting tired of my phoebes, there is only one more post to go, and then I will not show you birds for a week or two!].

By now the chicks are getting bigger, and true feathers are starting to come in. It looks as though all five are still there.


Although the phoebes above the hanging basket tolerate my photography from the kitchen window, and the chicks are unable to escape my lens even if I am nearby, the adults don’t come to the nest if I am out in the open. The nest is under a little roof, so it can’t be seen from a distance, I have to get close. Copying the BBC Wildlife team, who always tell you something about how they got the footage, I thought I’d show you my amateur solution

I remembered a birder once telling me that a car made an excellent improvised hide.  So I parked my truck near the nest, rolled down the window, and sat quietly inside. For about ten minutes they were wary, but then they settled, and all the shots that show an adult on the nest were taken by this subterfuge. Here is the setup:

phoebe nest setupShe (or maybe he) brings in a choice morsel, like this grub:


or this dragonfly:

Phoebe with food

And then delivers it to her chick:


Deliveries are fast, she rarely hangs around. This one was a big moth:

Phoebe with food

and it is delivered by air (the moth is blown flat against his beak by the speed of takeoff):

Phoebe with food

Deliveroo and Grubhub, you’ve met your match.




Phoebes 3: House cleaning

[This is another one of my scatological posts, feel free to skip it and wait for the next one!]

For the baby phoebes, food deliveries are fast and furious, often at intervals of only a couple of minutes: a small moth at 2.20pm, a large moth at 2.23pm and a huge dragonfly at 2.25pm. There are five mouths to feed.

What goes in must come out. Phoebes are meticulous housekeepers. When the young feel the urge, they raise their bottoms towards the edge of the nest:

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

The white blob is the fecal sac. It bursts out with some force

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

to be caught by the mother:

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

who then flies off to dispose of it elsewhere.

Phoebe dealing with fecal sac

For some reason she made a tidy little heap of them at the top of this corner post:

Phoebe, just fledging or fledged today

As they get close to fledging, they start to just do their own thing over the edge of the nest (and onto our doormat), but until then, the environs are spotless.


Phoebes 2: en famille

Four days later, and the chicks are strong enough to raise their heads above the edge of the nest:Phoebe with young

Both parents are foraging. About 20 feet from the nest, I have a curly bracket for a hanging basket of lobelia. It is close to the kitchen window, convenient for photos. Here they perch, using the bracket as a vantage point from which to swoop on their prey, but also as sort of kitchen pass, from which to send a steady flow of food deliveries to the nearby nest.

This one is juggling a dragonfly:


This one has got a grip on a butterfly,



And this one is showing off its catch to its mate, who appears to be saying “Wow!”:


The variety of prey is interesting. A Long-dash Skipper butterfly:


A huge Dragonfly:


A white-faced dragonfly:


I think this is a Field Cricket:


And a small grasshopper:


If they keep wriggling, they get bashed on the metal bracket till they succumb.


Anyway, these chicks are not going hungry.

Phoebes at home

[This is the first of probably three posts on a family of phoebes who have moved into our household.]

The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is a flycatcher, in the family Tyrannidae


Every year she builds an exquisite nest above our front door.

Phoebe nest

The base is mud, from the small pond by our driveway, which she uses to build a foundation on the top of the light above the door. Then she adds moss, then some sort of soft grass as a lining . Each year she uses the previous year’s nest as a base, and adds to it, building a multi-year skyscraper. Then it topples off, and she starts again. Obviously, the builders are from many generations of mother birds, but somehow the family tradition is kept alive. through the 38 years we have lived here, and who knows how long before that (the house is 210 years old). .

This year, as of May 23,  she has 5 eggs.

Phibere eggs, May 23

Every time we come in and out of the door she flies off, but she always comes back..

On June 5, instead of being snuggled inside the nest she was sitting on the edge:


I hoped that meant the eggs had hatched. We got out the ladder and peeked, and sure enough, tiny chicks.


From when I first saw the eggs, this is 13 days, and incubation is given as 16 days in the books. From now, it is supposedly another 16 days till they fledge, so I will watch them carefully and report back. I will check once a week only, so as not to disturb them, though they seem unbothered by our presence, and the mother returned to feed them a few minutes after we put the ladder away.

Watch this space.

PS: I am not sure why this unassuming bird is called Phoebe. Phoebe is the Latinized form of the Greek name Φοίβη (Phoibe), which meant “bright, pure”.  In Greek mythology Phoibe was a Titan associated with the moon and it was also one of the names of her granddaughter, the moon goddess Artemis.

PPS My friend Sue has rightly reminded me that it is of course named after its call: 

Solomon and the Queen

Solomon’s Seal is a very beautiful plant. One species grows wild around here, but the photos are of the ones in my garden, which have been there since before we owned the house, which means at least 40 years, perhaps much longer.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

It was in full flower two weeks ago, and I noticed that it was heavily populated with bumblebees.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

After doing a bit of light reading, I realized that these are queen bumblebees, which rather astonishingly winter over here under the ground. When they emerge in the spring  they are peckish, so a sizable plant like this is a great source of nectar and pollen.

But the flowers, each one a tiny bell, are closed, and to the bee has to force them open. Not all bees have the strength for this.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

What is more, the pollen is deep in the bell, so once the bee has got its head inside the flower, see below, it vibrates its wings at just the right frequency to dislodge the pollen, and down it showers.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

They stash some in their pollen baskets,


and some sticks to their fuzzy coat and gets carried along to fertilise the next flower they land on.

The queen then builds a nest in the ground, creates tiny waxy cups, fills each one with nectar and pollen, and lays her egg on top. Soon the next generation of worker bees will emerge. Quite a trick.

PS This plant is Polygonatum multiflorum , or  Great Solomon’s Seal.  It grows wild in Europe and Asia, and the Victorians cultivated it and brought it to the USA.

PPS: Buzz pollination is explained rather well here: “Approximately 8 % of flowering plants (∼20,000 species) have poricidal anthers, which release pollen only through small pores .. These anthers release pollen when they are vibrated by bees performing buzz pollination, or sonication … —a behavior in which bees grasp the anthers with their mandibles (usually) and vibrate their bodies by activating their flight muscles while decoupling the wings…. This transfers the vibration to the flowers, and pollen pours out of the anthers onto the bees’ bodies, where it can be groomed and brought to the nest to provision the larvae.” (Excerpted from Switzer and Combes 2016. )





The Secretive Salamander

[Apologies for the poor quality photos, but I thought it was interesting enough to post anyway.]

On our doorstep at 10pm on May 11, in the pitch-dark, was a Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. They are quite large, maybe 7 inches long, and this one may have been en route to lay eggs in our small pond.

Spotted Salamander

I brought it inside to photograph, but it didn’t like the light, so I cut the photoshoot short, took it back out, and replaced it on the earth next to where we found it. In the morning it was gone, hopefully heading off for a tryst in my pond…

But then I went to a nearby vernal pool, and found some eggs,

Spotted Salamander EWggs

which I carefully replaced in the pond to create lots of new black and yellow monsters. This was early May; by August they look like this, recognizably a salamander, but still with external gills. That’s what three months of development can do:


(The photo above was taken three years ago.)

And early one hot summer morning a couple of years ago a miniature one had found refuge in a cooler full of ice left out after a party:

Spotted salamander, Ambystola maculatum

Their population is stable, and they can live for 10 years. They live under rocks and logs, emerging only at night, returning to the pond in spring to mate and lay their eggs. This secretive life style makes them hard to see. Many years ago we found one in our dark cool basement, where it seemed to have spent the winter. Indeed, the one we saw on our doorstep may have just emerged from the basement, which is built of hand-hewn granite blocks from 1810 when the house was built, and is full of damp crevices through which a salamander could wriggle.

P.S. For a long time I thought salamanders were what Americans called newts. `It turns out however that salamanders are the larger family, which includes newts as a sub-group. Newts are semi-aquatic even as adults, with webbed feet. True salamanders are terrestrial except when mating, and have feet adapted for digging.


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