On March 29th, I finally got around to putting up the chickadee nest box I bought last year. Like with my flicker box, I targeted the Black-capped Chickadee as a potential yard tenant based on the fact I had a handful of them already hanging around and eating from my bird feeder. Well, on March 30th, I noticed a chickadee going in and out of the box and on April 6th, the pair already had a complete nest!
There are 7 chickadee species in North America and all are cavity-nesters. When I lived in Virginia, my backyard chickadee was the Carolina Chickadee, which tends to have a more southerly range than the Black-capped Chickadees I now encounter. Like the Northern Flicker, the Black-capped Chickadee will readily use a nest box. Of course, the chickadee is much smaller than the flicker, so it needs a smaller box. A good idea to keep birds like European Starlings and, especially, House Sparrows, away, is to buy or make a box with an entry hole too small for those birds to enter. I bought a hole guard made of metal to screw over the entry hole. The guard is 1 1/8 inches in diameter, which is perfect for the chickadees to squeeze through, but too small for those other bully birds.
Also unlike the Northern Flicker, which lays her eggs directly in the wood chips at the bottom of the cavity she’s chosen, the Black-capped Chickadee will build a nest inside her cavity of choice on top of the wood chips. The female constructs the nest using mosses, evergreen needles, bark, and other coarse materials as a base, which she then lines with softer material like animal fur and plant fibers like milkweed fluff. Only the female chickadee incubates the eggs.
Because I didn’t realize the chickadees would be so quick to start nesting, I didn’t get a nest camera installed beforehand, but I’m planning on putting one up next year. In the meantime, I’ll try to document the nest attempt as best I can. Chickadees are more sensitive to monitoring than bluebirds, so I probably won’t be checking the box too frequently lest I cause them to abandon it.
The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is a large, grey bird standing between 3 and 4 feet tall with a red forehead and a rusty wash on its back and flanks. Every year, western populations make the trek from their wintering grounds in Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas, to breeding grounds in the Northern U.S. and Canada. There is also a more sedentary population in Florida.
Last spring, I went to Monte Vista, Colorado to see them on their staging grounds in the San Luis Valley. Over 20,000 cranes pass through Monte Vista in migration. While this is an impressive number, it doesn’t compare to the number I saw last month in Kearney, Nebraska.
Kearney is known as the “Sandhill Crane capital of the World,” which it rightly earns as over 600,000 Sandhill Cranes migrate through the area every year. The birds are drawn to the combination of sandbars on the Platte River–an ideal roosting place to protect against predators–and the acres of corn fields nearby where they gorge themselves to prepare for their northward flight. The birds begin arriving in late February and leave in early April so the best time to see them for maximum effect is late March.
The weather was cold dreary when I went, which, according to my companions, isn’t unusual for March in the Platte River Valley. Nevertheless, it was amazing. Pre-dawn, watching the mists swirl around the birds as they begin to wake up on the river is truly a unique experience. You have to wonder what it must’ve been like for the first inhabitants of the area to see that spectacle for the first time. And watching the birds come into roost by the thousands approaches the very definition of sublime. The sky will be black with cranes swirling like leaves in a tornado and the sounds of their cries is deafening.
It’s impossible to miss the birds when almost anywhere in Kearney, but more dedicated observation spots include Rowe Sanctuary and Fort Kearney State Park. There are also several observation areas along the road.
The peak of crane migration may be coming to an end, but there are also tons of other great birds to see while in Kearney. Shorebirds are starting their northward migration right now, the Snow Geese are massing for their own migration, and there are still plenty of ducks in bright, breeding plumage. It’s definitely worth a trip!