Birding

Chicks and Wasps Galore—Behind the Scenes of a First-Year Bluebird Trail

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a nest box monitor? A teen birder shares her adventures from the field.

For many people in suburban neighborhoods, bluebirds are a regular spring and summer sight. But if you're like me and have been blue over a lack of bluebirds in your area, you might have to convince them to come to you.

From the moment I first learned about bluebird nest boxes in school last year, I knew I had to put them up on the trail around my home in central Ohio. The thought of filling my neighborhood with Eastern Bluebirds—a feathered jewel that seldom shows itself in my part of the country—was irresistible. Of course, the boxes wouldn't just benefit me: They'd also help a struggling species that's facing off against climate change and invasive, territorial species like House Sparrows.

To get started, I reached out to the local park association, which owns and maintains the trail I was eyeing. They put me in touch with Darlene Sillick, an organizer for the Ohio Bluebird Society and Columbus Audubon Society. Darlene ended up becoming my trusty mentor on the project. She encouraged me to build the boxes ahead of spring migration, and take notes on them for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nestwatch program. All I had to do was get certified as a Nestwatch monitor and of course, help raise a few babies. A typical responsibility for a 15-year-old. 

Little did I know that over the course of a few months, my boxes would become home to multiple small feathered families, all of which have quickly stolen my heart.

The Big Walnut Trail, fondly nicknamed “the Loop” by my family and me, has been my go-to birding spot for the last three years. It circles a fourth of a mile and is bordered by forest and yards. It's also close to the Walnut River, which flows a bit to the west. 

The trail itself is mostly made up of shrubby plants—one of the reasons why it's filled with swallows, warblers, and hunting hawks. But even with its seemingly perfect habitat, it's never yielded Eastern Bluebirds. Still, I thought it could be great place to put up nest boxes: Bluebirds favor forest edges and fairly open spaces where they can spot tasty insects. I took a few photos of the landscape and sent them to Darlene for input. She assured me that I’d have Eastern Bluebirds in no time, but I couldn’t help doubt it a little. 

Darlene gave me a few other tips to increase my chances of success. She told me to install a trap box by the bushes in my yard to keep the resident House Sparrows from colonizing the boxes on the nearby trail. She also said to space out the main boxes so that they'd remain hidden from one another, and to have the openings face southeast—away from strong westerly winds and storms. Darlene was then kind enough to give me the wood for six nest boxes. After I assembled the parts, she and my family helped me set them up on a cold day in early March. The most difficult part was pounding the seven-foot poles into the near-frozen ground. But once the poles were in and the boxes were attached, the trail was ready for action. 

As a Nestwatch monitor, I had to check my boxes weekly and report my observations in the app. The system asks you a standard set of questions each time; if I didn't have internet, I'd jot down notes and put them into the phone later. The first few weeks on the trail were slow, especially for an anxious teen who could barely think of anything but her trail. (I should say that patience is the key to the nest box game.) But I was soon surprised with some early nesters: Carolina Chickadees. They’d chosen to take over the trap box designated for House Sparrows. 

By early April I was enjoying views of the chickadees as they brought face fulls of moss back and forth to the yard, peeping excitedly. I, too, was excited—and also proud of the pair that had so bravely nested in my yard. I vowed that no harm would come to them, and thankfully, none ever did. (Upon their arrival, my father and I added a smaller entrance to protect them from the sparrows.) After about two weeks of nest building, the chickadees laid their eggs. Then, in late May, the babies fledged right before my eyes while I was outside washing our dogs. As quickly as the family had appeared, they were gone. Being my first nesters, they still hold a firm place in my heart. 

During the excitement back at home, the Loop was quiet of bluebird song. But it was filled with the rustling of wasp wings, which were taking shelter from the cold. I was lucky, though: The wasps weren't nesting just yet, so they were pretty easy to remove. By applying a thin layer of vaseline on the ceiling of the boxes and leaving them open overnight, I was able to declare victory in weeks. Unfortunately, there’s one stubborn wasp that won’t leave the first box on the trail. It keeps starting a tiny paper nest that I have to destroy during every one of my visits. It's probably glowering at me right now with its arms crossed across its striped thorax.

Chickadees, wasps . . . but no bluebirds. Finally, on April 27, I saw a flash of blue and orange on the side of the Loop. I froze in my tracks, peering through my binoculars. A male Eastern Bluebird! But where was the female? Maybe this individual was simply migrating through central Ohio. I waited a tad bit longer.

Suddenly, the female burst into view, diving into box five as fast as the blink of an eye. The bluebirds had taken a fancy to my trail, and it looked like they were going to stick around. Realizing this, I did a short happy dance and skipped all the way back down the block.

From there, the season took a turn for the best: As May wore on, the pair went on to raise four healthy chicks. One by one they took off, cueing the beginning of a beautiful cycle. It’s common for bluebirds to return to the same site to nest, so I expect my pioneering parents to come back next spring. If they do I’ll be ready, boxes squeaky clean and waiting.

Tree Swallow. Photo: Katelyn Shelton

After the bluebirds left, the Loop got even busier. A flock of seven or eight Tree Swallows appeared from nowhere, swooping and chattering over the scrub. The males argued over the boxes, while the females poked their heads out from the openings. By the end, three pairs of Tree Swallows had claimed boxes two, three, and four. 

Surprisingly, they all made different kinds of nests. Boxes two and four had cups made up of soft grass, while the cup in box three was mostly made of long twigs. Each of them was topped with a bouquet of white feathers, though. The three families fledged in succession, but boxes two and four each lost a chick—a lesson that nothing can be perfect in nature. But instead of dwelling on the two lost birds, I focused on the fact that 13 out of 15 of the young swallows flew away at the season. That was enough for me to be happy.

House Wren. Photo: Katelyn Shelton

Now that it's August, the songbirds in Ohio are reaching the very end of the breeding season. But the nesting spree isn’t over just yet. Recently, House Wrens moved into the vacant trap box in my yard and box three on the Loop. I’ll continue to send weekly updates on their progess to NestWatch. Can I see the makings of the nest? Is it a new one, or is it being made from old materials? These are a few of the questions I have to answer in the app.

Being a monitor and a community scientist has been rewarding in general, but I think I love observing the birds even more. Living alongside these nests makes my life feel joyful and complete. Best of all, it's taught me that nature doesn’t need much to flourish—and that a little help from birders can go a long way. 

You can read more about my first nest box season on the Cornell Nestwatch website, and find more information on how to join the program yourself. As my trail continues to give back to me, I hope yours will, too.

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