Since the middle of March, I have been involved in a volunteer project at Canoe Creek State Park monitoring several bluebird nest boxes there. The objective is to track and record any nesting activity that takes place in the various boxes. There are about 150 nest boxes located throughout the park, all of which are monitored by individual volunteers who keep track of a specific group of boxes. I have been checking nine boxes this spring, and the experience has been quite gratifying for me.
Because I typically visit Canoe Creek several days a week to hike, take photographs, watch birds or go fishing, taking a few minutes to make the rounds to check a few birdhouses easily fit my routine. I also looked forward to learning more about the various species of birds that would make use of the nest boxes as well as the opportunity to get some good photos of the baby birds and their parents.
The nest boxes are designed so that one side can be opened for a quick peek to see what is happening inside. While these birdhouses are referred to as "bluebird boxes," eastern bluebirds aren't the only species that will use such nest boxes. Tree swallows, wrens and house sparrows also prefer that type of nesting structure.
The first couple of weeks of checking the boxes went without any sign of nest building. By the end of March and early April, however, I began to observe courtship and territorial behavior around several of the boxes from both bluebirds and tree swallows. The first strands of nest material appeared in a nest box on April 3. By April 30, at least three boxes contained completed nests, and nests in the early stages of construction were underway in five others.
I discovered the first three bluebird eggs on May 4, and two days later, a fourth egg completed that clutch. By the middle of May, all but one of the nine nests were complete, and several of them contained the first eggs as well. In Pennsylvania, the average incubation period for bluebirds is 12 to 14 days and 13 to 16 days for tree swallows. The first bluebird hatchlings appeared on May 20, followed by the first batch of baby tree swallows on May 28.
The tiny hatchlings seem so helpless, looking more like fuzzy globs of gelatin rather than the sleek feathered flyers they will soon become. What a contrast that is from a ground-nesting bird like the wild turkey. The incubation period for wild turkey eggs is 28 days, just about twice that of bluebirds and swallows. As a result, turkeys are much more developed when they hatch, and for good reason. Young turkeys must be ready to leave the nest and follow their mother within hours after hatching.
But baby bluebirds and swallows grow quickly once hatched. Within a few days, their eyes open and feathers begin to sprout, and once they are fully fledged, the young birds are ready to fly and leave the nest. My first batch of bluebirds were gone just 16 days after hatching.
All nine of my boxes have produced hatchlings so far - two broods of bluebirds and seven broods of tree swallows. While tree swallows usually have a single brood, a pair of eastern bluebirds will usually produce two to three broods per year, so the monitoring process will go on through the rest of the summer. So far, I've enjoyed watching this wondrous and amazing aspect of nature firsthand, and I hope to see and photograph much more of it in the coming months.
For those who would like to see some of the images of the bluebird and tree swallow nesting cycles, I will be giving a presentation of some of my favorite outdoor photography at the New Hope Baptist Church in Duncansville next Saturday evening, June 18. The evening will begin with dinner (not a wild game dinner) at 6 p.m. followed by my outdoor photography slide show. I am looking forward to this opportunity to share some of my vast collection of nature images with others who enjoy the natural world. I will include a variety of pictures including everything from close-ups of wildflowers and insects to wildlife and landscapes. And for those who recall the stories I wrote a few years ago about an amazingly friendly ruffed grouse, I will include a wonderful selection of pictures of that remarkable bird.
There is no charge for dinner or the presentation, and everyone is cordially invited to attend. The church is located just off Rt. 764 on Maple Hollow Road. Hope to see you there.