Sunday, April 28, 2013

Nesting Phoebes!

eastern phoebe,
sayornis phoebe      order: PASSERIFORMES       family: TYRANNIDAE 

Phoebes are part of the "flycatcher" group.  They catch flies (and other insects).  Their flycatching habit is one of the reasons they must travel south for the winter.  However, they don't travel quite as far as some of the other flycatchers.  Also, they are the first of the flycatchers to return in spring and the last to leave in fall.   If they are being quiet and not giving themselves away with their "fee-bee" call, they tend to be tough for me to identify against the other flycatchers.  I have to study them and take identification photos to compare them to the other birds in the flycatcher group.  There is one hint though:  the phoebes are known as "tail-waggers".  While perched, they have an odd little habit of constantly wagging their tail up and down!

It all started two weeks ago.  I was outside on the screened porch of the cabin, when I heard the phoebes calling their raspy, unmistakable, "fee-bee... fee-bee". Phoebes are easy to identify by ear.  Once you hear one, you won't forget it.  Plus, the phoebe says his own name... which is very helpful!

I noticed that the phoebes were making trips to the old wood shed.  I suspected they were scouting nesting locations. They like to nest in the overhangs and eaves of man-made structures.  However, they also like natural cliffs and rock faces.  I was lucky enough to watch a phoebe build a nest and raise a family at the Indian Rocks on our property two years ago!

On this particular day, two weeks ago, the phoebes kept making their rounds to the forest edge, back to the large hickory tree, then back to the wood shed.  I was certain they were nest building.  However, by the end of the day, something had changed their plans.  They abandoned that location and didn't return.

The next morning, bright and early, I heard them once again right outside the screened porch by the hickory tree.  This time, they decided to fly UNDER the CABIN!  I was perfectly still and quiet, very aware that I could frighten them and derail any future nesting plans.  I left the porch for the day and tried to "ignore" their frequent under-the-cabin trips.

After the passing of a week, I decided to go under the cabin and search for the nest.  I looked and looked and looked.... and then looked some more.  I saw no nest and no birds. How disappointing!!  I reported to Phil that they must've moved elsewhere and there was no nest to be found.

A few days later, Phil had to go under the cabin to mount and install our hot-water tank.  Sure enough, it was PHIL who found the nest!!  He could not wait to tell me that the phoebes were nesting directly beside the water tank.  He had inadvertently flushed Mama from the nest, which clued him as to where to look.

This is a view of the side of the cabin.  Look underneath and you will see the hot water tank suspended from the floor joists.  (by the way... that unsightly messy mess WILL SOON be covered by under-pinning! Under the house is our "basement storage"... and.. well... it's messy!)

The arrow is pointing to the location of the nest.  Even if I were to lay on my belly, the nest is not visible from the side of the cabin.  One must go entirely under the cabin to see it.  Very cleverly hidden!

Phoebes build sweet little nests... all snug with moss.  If you discover a nest in a similar location, but made of mud, it is probably the work of swallows.  BUT if the nest is made of moss... phoebes are probably your bird!

 Mama, under the cabin... making sure that I don't come any closer!

.... so mystery solved!  They are tricky little birds.  I'm glad that they found a very secretive and safe location to nest.  I will leave them be as much as I can.  I flushed Mama once while first approaching the nest, but now that I know where it is, I won't do it again.  I can lay on my belly from under the cabin and try to get photos with my zoom lens.  Hopefully she will allow me to get photos if I keep a respectable distance. 

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