I have always been happiest outside, even as a little girl. I love the melody of the birds, the breeze on my skin and the smell of the air. When I am in and surrounded by nature, I feel like I am home.
That feeling is what prompted me to take the Maryland Master Naturalist Training Course through the University of Maryland Extension last fall. After 52 hours of classroom instruction and 8 hours of hands-on training, students are asked to perform 40 hours of volunteer service annually. So, when a call for volunteers went out to our listserv for Bluebird Trail Monitors in our area, I jumped at the chance. What could be better than earning volunteer hours doing an activity I loved? Especially since my family and I have been enjoying nest-watching for many years right in our own backyard Certified Wildlife Habitat.
Related: Bluebirds visit our Backyard Habitat
Providing nesting boxes for native cavity-nesting birds dramatically increases their ability to survive & thrive in an environment where their natural habitat has been greatly reduced due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Additionally, these birds are often out competed for nesting sites by non-native species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings, whose aggressive nature can result in nest take-over, and death of adults, nestlings and/or eggs. To help avoid the competition of European Starlings, these nesting boxes have a 1-1/2″ diameter opening, which is too small for starlings to enter. Part of our monitoring will include identifying and eliminating nests made by House Sparrows who are able to enter a hole this size.
The information collected while monitoring the Bluebird Trail will be sent to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We will be taking detailed records of this year’s nest box inhabitants and the success of their broods. In addition to the Bluebirds we hope to attract, other residents may include native cavity-nesting birds such as Tree swallows, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and Carolina or House wrens. We will be happy to host any of these families along our Bluebird trail.
On the first morning of training, I met with Bonnie Bell from the Maryland Bluebird Society. Bonnie and a small team of volunteers, including myself, will be checking & recording nest box activity along a newly installed Bluebird Trail (series of nesting boxes) at the Button Farm Living History Center which is located on 40 acres within Seneca Creek State Park.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and the birds were out in full, serenading us while we worked. Together, we checked a trail that included 12 nesting boxes which had been assembled & installed earlier this year. Walking to each one was not only educational, it was pure joy. The first thing we noticed as we walked up to first set of nesting boxes was a pair of Tree Swallows. They were regally perched atop two boxes near one another. The birds looked at us across the field with calm & confidence, as if wondering why we were entering their space. As we approached them, one swiftly flew away and the other flew right towards us, warning us to stay away from his newly acquired residence. In each case those boxes were empty, but it seems safe to assume that we will be finding some hint of their grassy nest in the weeks to come.
The next set of boxes were empty so we slowly made our way through a meadow that lead to the final set of houses. Making our way through the open field, we spotted a flash of blue flying away from a nest box in the distance. This sighting put a hop in our step as we neared the last four boxes. Opening a nest box is like opening a birthday gift. You never know what you are going to get and you can’t help yourself but to be hopeful when you see such promising activity. The first box was empty. Bummer. In the second box, we happily discovered a full Bluebird nest made of what looked like stems instead of the usual grass, including a full nest cup. Bonnie had a great inspection mirror that made it possible for her to get this terrific shot.
The last two boxes, including the one that we saw the Bluebird fly out of earlier, were empty. Once we reached the end of the trail, we turned around to make our way back. We were greeted with the image of a female Bluebird atop her nest (mentioned earlier), with nesting materials in her bill. She waited patiently. Watching us while simultaneously wanting to finish her job. But, in the end she chose to fly way. She is a responsible parent, making sure no predators, including humans, are paying too much attention to where she was establishing her nursery.
We finished our trail monitoring task and began our hike back to our cars when we looked up to find a majestic pair of American Bald Eagles slowly…circling…the sky. I worked hard to quickly focus my camera on these beautiful birds, but only got one or two good shots. They flew easily through the sky in great big concentric circles, following one another. They seemed peaceful, not aggressive at all. And then they slowly but surely floated towards the horizon and out of eyesight. Of all the birds and wildlife I have observed in my many years, I have never seen bald eagles in person before. What a thrilling bonus on an already wonderful avian-filled day.
I am so excited for my duties this year as a Bluebird trail monitor. And, I am grateful for Bonnie’s leadership and training. As The Soulful Gardener, I know that every time we enter into nature, it greets us with some wonderful surprises. Today was no exception.
Mother Nature never lets us down.