Posts tagged ‘birds’

Bluebirds and Company: What’s Chirping at the Smithsonian Gardens’ Greenhouses

The summer season brings new life to the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses. As you might expect, much of this new life is the result of staff work to produce plants for our gardens. However, there are also a surprising number of winged, chirping occupants on the greenhouse property this season. As a part of the Bluebird NestWatch effort organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Smithsonian Gardens has set up ten specially-designed bluebird houses around the greenhouse property. The greenhouse staff visits each birdhouse weekly and unscrews a side wall to make notes of the visitors and nest progress. Often times they find other species of birds occupying the houses, so it’s really a fantastic glimpse at a variety of bird life. During the past several weeks of collecting data, we’ve seen Bluebirds, Wrens, Tree Swallows, and Robins making their nests in these houses.

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Greenhouse staff member accessing bird house

We also regularly see ground-nesting Killdeer around the greenhouse. Preferring ground mobility to flight, these birds are fast runners from an early age. This makes them difficult to approach especially as they are easily spooked. Though not one of our birdhouse residents, the Killdeer nest quickly became a weekly checkpoint for our observation tours and we were able to see four chicks this year.

It’s easy to imagine that the parents of these chicks were not particularly pleased with our weekly interruptions. As a result, we rapidly learned each bird’s defense strategy. Bluebirds are often shy creatures and the parents would fly to a vantage point to watch us with a keen eye while we conducted our research. Tree Swallows, on the other hand, are a little more aggressive and would dive-bomb us to get us to leave their nest alone. Adult Robins and Wrens would often just flee the coop entirely and wait for a quiet time to revisit their brood.

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Bluebird fledgling

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Wren chicks

Killdeer, on the other hand, have developed a pretty impressive show to protect their young which uses camouflage, predator calls, and distraction performances. Killdeer often hang out near our gravel walks or driveways where, as seen in the picture below, their neutral colored feathers help them blend into the background. Under the cover of camouflage, the adults would use alarm calls to attract attention to themselves and away from their babies when we approached the nest. When that failed, the adults would lay down and stretch out their wings like they had been injured to make themselves appear an appealing victim to the perceived predator. Once the threat (in this case the greenhouse staff) was fooled by the adult Killdeer’s show and moved to approach, the adult would wait for the the chicks to be safely out of reach before miraculously “recovering” and flying away to safety. There’s nothing more humbling than being duped by the oldest trick in the book.

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An alert Killdeer adult

All in all, it’s been a terrific and refreshing few weeks for the greenhouse staff to get outside and witness the beauty of avian life. During this project we’ve not only seen countless chicks and eggs, we’ve also seen the these young birds develop from day-old hatchings into fledglings ready to fly. Despite being attacked by adults aggressively protecting their young and mocked by flawless Killdeer performances, it’s been a pleasure seeing the diversity of bird life out at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses.

– Alan Marcus, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

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Newly hatched Robin chicks

July 2, 2015 at 12:43 pm Leave a comment

The Great Auk

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), now displayed in sculpture on the southeast corner of the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was a flightless bird that fell prey to exploitation. A fast and facile swimmer and diver, the auk was characterized by its stubby wings, high-contrast black and white feathers, tall body, clumsy waddle, and large ribbed beak.  It was initially found in dense colonies in the subarctic Atlantic, along the coasts of Canada, the United States, Iceland and Norway. But human predation caused its numbers to dwindle over the course of several centuries.

The Great Auk

A hand coloured lithograph of Pinguinus impennis from John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum of London via eol.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

Great auks spent most of their lives in the sea, seeking out land only during the spring breeding season. Their breeding sites were limited: the only suitable areas were those with reefs or rocky ledges, where the birds could waddle ashore to lay their eggs.  Because the birds tended to concentrate in a few coastal areas, they were an easy target for hunters. Indeed, they were subjected to large-scale massacres, hunters killing them for their meat, oil, and feathers. The latter were used for clothes and pillows, the comforts of humans and profits of businesses taking precedence over the survival of the bird.

 Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

The last two Great auks were killed in 1844, although there were reports of a single bird remaining in 1852. The remains of the last two confirmed birds are preserved in formaldehyde in a museum in Denmark, a sad reminder of the bird’s demise.

The Great auk inspired Ogden Nash’s A Caution to Everybody:

 

          Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.

Consider man, who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

 

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens Volunteer

 

November 12, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Lost Bird Project: Modern Extinction

Interning at the Smithsonian Gardens this winter has been an enriching and rewarding experience.  Getting the opportunity to work on so many different projects with so many different people in an intellectually-stimulating environment makes every day exciting and gratifying.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to assist in The Lost Bird Project’s arrival at the Smithsonian. Sculptor Todd McGrain began The Lost Bird Project to bring awareness to North American birds that have become extinct within the last two centuries. Todd has made five cast-bronze statues to immortalize five extinct birds: the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, and the Great Auk. He has traveled across the country installing his statues at locations where the birds were last seen. His statues have also been displayed at various institutions across the country.

Heath Hen sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Heath Hen installed in its new home in the Enid A. Haupt Garden parterre.

Smithsonian Gardens is proud to host Todd’s statues in the Enid A. Haupt Garden located adjacent to the Smithsonian Castle. The Passenger Pigeon statue will be on display at the Urban Bird Habitat Garden located at the northwest corner of the National Museum of Natural History as a companion piece to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America opening on June 24, 2014. The five sculptures will be on display through March 15, 2015.

Lost Bird Project sculptures

The Lost Bird Project bronze sculptures in situ.

The stories of these birds are tragic and highlights just how fragile nature can be. One-hundred years ago, massive flocks (numbering in the millions) of Passenger Pigeons flew across the Unites States. It was inconceivable at the time that the huge Passenger Pigeon population could become extinct. The birds became a stable food source across the country and as the demand for Passenger Pigeons grew, the birds were hunted to the point of extinction. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in 1914.

Carolina Parakeet sculpture by Todd McGrain

Artist Todd McGrain unveils the Carolina Parakeet.

These two exhibits remind us of the importance of understanding how as humans we are intrinsically linked to our environment.  Whether directly or indirectly, humans have a huge influence on our natural world and our every action affects many other organisms. These birds represent just a mere fraction of the species we have lost over the past two centuries. Pollution, excessive hunting and fishing, global warming, habitat loss are all anthropogenic factors that have contributed to the extinction of many species across the globe. By bringing awareness to this issue, we can work towards preventing such extinctions from happening in the future.

 -Tammy Lee, Smithsonian Gardens landscape architecture intern

 

Map of The Lost Bird Project in the Smithsonian gardens.

April 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

A Second Life for a Tree

In the summer of 2013 a specimen lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) at the National Museum of Natural History had been in decline for several months. An investigation by Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens arborist, found very large girdling roots growing just below the soil surface. In his report Lacebark Pine # 122 Evaluation at NMNH he determined there was little to no chance that the tree could be rehabilitated. Within two months of issuing the report the tree turned completely brown and it was clear that it need to be removed.

Or did it? Could the once stately pine on the corner of Madison Drive and 9th Street that formed the border between the Butterfly Habitat Garden and the newly established Urban Bird Habitat find a second life?

As a mature specimen of this slow growing pine the tree exhibited extraordinary exfoliating bark in a patchwork of white, olive, light purple and silver. The multi-stemmed trunk was a striking structural element in the landscape that would be a significant loss. Luckily, there was a way to save this feature and in doing so support wildlife enhancing the value and educational lesson of the space. The tree was the perfect candidate to become a snag.

By turning the soon to be rotting trunk and branches into a snag it gains a new purpose in the Urban Bird Habitat serving as a space for nests, nurseries, storage, foraging, roosting and perching for birds, small mammals, and other wildlife in the city.

Here is how we did it:

Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana)

By September the tree had turn completely brown. Alas, it was dead and we sat early in the morning waiting for a professional tree crew arrive.

Creating the snag.

To create our snag we removed the top third of the tree and half the remaining side-branches. This method facilitates the inside-out decay process best for attracting cavity-nesting birds.

Removing the top third of the tree.

The jagged top and broken side branches give a more natural look to the snag. Furthermore, they speed up decay and provide hunting perches for hawks, eagles, and owls. (Note: this is the only instance when this is desirable pruning – don’t be surprised when your tree care professional gives you a strange look and makes you repeat your request several times to make sure that he or she is hearing you correctly).

Putting the finishing touches on the snag.

The tree crew puts the finishing touches on their masterpiece which quickly became an attention grabbing feature at Smithsonian Gardens.

Snag, before and after

The before and after images of the tree show how we were able to maintain the great bark and interesting structure of the tree as a structural feature in the garden. (Perhaps our snag is some competition for Graft, the 45 ft. stainless steel tree installed by Roxy Paine in the neighboring National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in 2009)

The garden is a dynamic landscape and one must be prepared to deal with the changes that nature brings.  Through creative thinking the Smithsonian Gardens’ staff discovered a great opportunity to turn what could have been a significant loss to gardens into a valuable resource.  Today many museum visitors stop to look at this unique tree along the National Mall.  Most seems puzzled by its presence but their questions are answered by the Snag interpretive panel.

So what do you think?  Does your garden have a spot for a snag?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

-James Gagliardi, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist

Further Reading:
Living with Wildlife: Snags – The Wildlife Tree from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

February 17, 2014 at 7:30 pm 2 comments

Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouses Welcome Bluebirds

I am not sure.

The installed nesting boxes on the Eastern Bluebird Habitat Trail.

Working in collaboration with Richard E. Gies, lead volunteer of the Longwood Gardens Bluebird Project, Smithsonian Gardens established an Eastern Bluebird Habitat trail around the perimeter of the Greenhouse facility in Suitland MD.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dave Menke, photographer.

Eastern Bluebird. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dave Menke, photographer.

Why Bluebirds?

A native songbird, the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) is a member of the thrush family (Turdidae). They eat insects and berries and require open grassy areas and meadows with low groundcover for feeding. These beautiful birds breed in all eastern states from Maine to Florida. They are considered to be secondary cavity nesters in that they traditionally nest in holes made by woodpeckers and other birds.

The nesting boxes were installed to benefit an existing population of Bluebirds as well as to encourage more bluebirds to nest on site. Eastern Bluebird populations are on the rise thanks, in part, to efforts like this one. The lack of suitable nesting cavities caused by changing land use patterns, increasing urbanization, and competition from introduced European starlings and house sparrows has been responsible for the decline of Eastern Bluebirds populations in the past.

Tree Swallow. Image courtesy of the

Tree Swallow. Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. James C. Leupold, photographer.

When is a pair of nesting boxes better than one?

In areas where Eastern Bluebirds coexist with Tree Swallows (like Maryland) it is recommended that two boxes be placed 15-20 feet apart. Tree swallows will select one box for nesting and defend the other against use by other swallows thereby allowing Bluebirds to claim it.

Green roof nesting boxes waiting to be installed at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses in Suitland, Maryland earlier this winter.

Green roof nesting boxes waiting to be installed at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses in Suitland, Maryland earlier this winter.

A Green Roof: for style and comfort.

The roofs on these nesting boxes have been planted with a variety of stonecrop (sedum) plants. The purpose of the “green roof” is to help keep the interior of the boxes cool during the hot summer months.

The temperature inside these nesting boxes will be monitored in an effort to ensure the safety of the fledglings (baby birds).

The green roof nesting boxes were designed Richard Gies for Longwood Gardens. You can download a PDF of his instructions here:

Green Roof Eastern Bluebird nesting boxes

March 7, 2013 at 8:30 am 2 comments


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