Winter is the best time to spot dens and nests. Usually, we think of bird nests, and we see abandoned ones topped with mounds of snow along roadsides and in shrubs. When we look up, we also spot large clusters of leaves and sticks – squirrel nests.
Squirrels make two types of nests: dens and dreys. Dens are cavities in trees and dreys are the large balls of leaves and sticks that squirrels fashion. From the ground, these dreys look small, but they are really good sized.
Taking in the view from the safety of a tree den.
When squirrel families mature in late summer, the young venture forth to find new lodgings. If the population of squirrels is low and the availability of hollows in trees is high, then squirrels take the dens. These are hollow spaces inside the trunk that squirrels line with leaves and bits of fur and bark. Squirrels do not create these hollows but use them. Wood rot and woodpeckers create the spaces and squirrels make the most of them. Dens offer great protection from the elements and predators and they are warmer. So, squirrels conserve their energy when they must “hole up” during winter storms. When the worst of the harsh weather passes, squirrels begin to stir, digging for nuts and raiding bird feeders.
Squirrels make their dreys near sturdy forks in branches or close to the tree trunk. They will be high up for protection from predators. Usually, a tree might support one or two squirrel nests, but occasionally, we see half a dozen scattered throughout a wide-branching deciduous tree. Squirrel condominiums. These might be secondary homes or extensions of families. Secondary homes tend to be more loosely constructed and are scattered near the main home tree and serve as shelter in case a squirrel gets caught out in the elements or is being chased by a predator.
Each nest begins with a study base of twigs. Scientists have discovered that sometimes squirrels weave grapevines into the structure along with leaves, bark, moss, and twigs for added support. After all, the nest sways in the branches and get buffeted by winds, rain, and snow, so it needs to be strong. Inside, the nest is dry and warm.
When you are driving or walking look up and spot the nests of one of our most industrious small mammals. Squirrels mate in January and soon the young will be born – in the bleak mid-winter maybe in a squirrel condominium near you!
Summer in the upper Midwest has been pleasant and we are out and about!
Summer Flowers and Activity
And, Terry Pitts shared this video of an industrious bird making its nest. Likely a second brood.
A male bluebird flies from the nest to bring back a snack for its mate.
Here’s a fun guest blog by friends, Gordon and Nancy, about their husbandry of birds on their “Little Acreage.”
“A few years ago my wife and I decided we wanted to attract wildlife to our little acreage. We already had deer and wild turkeys so we decided to try to attract some Bluebirds. We went on line to see where the best spot would be to place some houses to attract them.
“We then went to the Indian Creek Nature Center and bought a couple of houses. We felt that we needed the houses for bluebirds and the Center could use the donation. We placed four houses on the edge of the hay field.
“As time went on, all we saw were sparrows using the nest so we thought nothing would become of our houses. Then, a couple of years ago, a pair of Bluebirds started checking out the nest. But, we never found any eggs.
Four eggs! Photo: G&N Bena
“Earlier this year we looked in the house and nothing. A few days later we found these four eggs! What a great surprise for us. We now monitor the nest to watch the progress of our new friends.
Checking the other houses we found that a pair of wrens decided the house was satisfactory for their
Feeding Young. Photo: G&N Bena
new home and I think they have at least seven eggs. We will be monitoring this nest, also. The other two houses have nests but I think they are sparrow nest. We decided to leave them because they need a home, also.”
Gordon and Nancy
Editor’s Note: Sialis.org has a fascinating set of pictures showing the progression of raising and fledging Bluebird young.
At Winding Pathways, we venture into our yard nearly every day, even if it’s raining, windy,
Some birds homestead at Winding Pathways.
or frigid out. Of all the times, early May is our favorite to linger outdoors. Why? It’s the best birding.
Very late April and the first couple of weeks of May boast normally glorious weather, blooming flowers and birds. Lots of birds, including those we can only enjoy for a fleeting week or two.
Here’s how we group the birds that we enjoy in our yard. Odds are the same or similar species follow this pattern in backyards with good habitat across much of the continent.
Some birds don’t migrate. They brave the cold and grace winter feeders. In summer, they often raise broods of babies on the edge of the yard. These include titmice, chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, house sparrows, and many woodpeckers.
Juncos are almost always under our feeders all winter gleaning seeds. To a Junco Iowa is the balmy south with a “warm” winter. Around mid-April they head north to nest in the boreal forests of Canada and Minnesota. We won’t see them again until around Halloween.
Many people consider the first sighting of a Robin to be a sign of spring. They assume the birds just arrived from the south. Robins, and closely related bluebirds, aren’t ambitious migrants. As the weather cools each fall, they abandon suburbia and move to nearby brushy areas for the winter. Winter Robins are common in orchards, the edges of farm fields, and wherever they can find dry and frozen fruit. These much-admired birds do a dietary switcheroo each year. Robins are famed worm eaters, and during warm months, they mostly eat insects and other invertebrates. In winter, they’re mostly vegetarians and dine on frozen berries. In years when fruit is scarce they’ll move south until they find suitable foraging.
Many birds are true migrants that winter far to the south but return north to raise a family. Among these true migrants are house wrens, rose breasted grosbeaks, orioles and indigo buntings. The homesteaders that nest at Winding Pathways have reached their northernmost destination but many of the same species simply rest and eat for a day or two before flying further north to nest. They are mere passersby.
THE AMBITIOUS MIGRANTS
Many birds are serious migrants that winter in South or Central America or the southern US and wing north to Canada and even Alaska to nest, only stopping to rest and eat for a day or two on their long journey. Many are warblers, although dozens of other bird species only use Winding Pathways as their “quick stop” on the way north. We can only enjoy the procession for a week or two in early May as the migrants stock up and then catch the next southerly winds to propel them to their nesting areas.
BIRDING AT ITS BEST
What’s remarkable about early May is the sheer diversity of birds that visit yards. It’s the best time to bring a cup of coffee and pair of binoculars outside. Sit quietly and look and listen to discover the amazing array of birds not possible observe in other seasons. A good bird book helps with identification but we often use the resources of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to help us identify and learn about birds. Their website at includes outstanding information that helps us determine species by both sight and sound and we frequently use their MERLIN phone app when we’re hiking or camping.
We’re lucky to have a pair of bald eagles nesting within walking distance of our home. Occasionally we clamber through the woods to check on the couple, but we’re careful to not disturb them. We stay a hundred yards away from their nest tree and spy on them through binoculars.
On March 12 Rich witnessed a remarkable trait of eagle parentage. Incubation is a female task with most birds. The male rarely sits. Not so with bald eagles. The soon-to-be father helps keep the eggs warm. Rich happened to be near the nest during the changing of the guard.
Watching from a distance.
He could see just the white crown of the sitting eagle’s head protruding from the huge nest built high in a white oak tree. Its mate perched on a limb about 50 yards away. Suddenly the sitting bird climbed off the eggs, spread its wings, and began circling the nest. Its mate joined the circling. After a few revolutions around the nest the recently sitting bird made a beeline north, presumably to look for dinner. The remaining eagle circled a few more times before settling down on a branch near the nest. After a minute or two it hopped into the nest and settled down over the eggs.
Who was who? Male and female bald eagles look alike, so Rich couldn’t tell if the male or female was the first incubator. It doesn’t really matter. Cooperation between the two is fascinating as this link shows.
Eagle parentage is an exercise in teamwork. The pair built the nest, take turns incubating, and both hunt for nestling food.
Eagles share parenting duties. Photo by M. Norlander
Eagle nests are becoming more common everywhere. The birds mostly feed on fish, so likely nest locations are near rivers, lakes, or the ocean. Nests are enormous piles of sticks, usually high in a tree and easy to spot. Bald eagles don’t seem bothered by roads, stores, or houses and often nests are within sight of heavy human activity.
Find a nest, dress warmly and sit some distance away with a pair of binoculars. You’ll be treated to examples of outstanding parentage. We plan to spy on our local eagle pair from a distance through the 35-day incubation period and as they raise their chicks.