Bugs For Bethpage Baby Bluebirds

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Above a male and female bluebird resting. She's got a bug in her bill.
Above a male and female bluebird resting. She’s got a bug in her bill.

On a recent Friday at Bethpage State Park I meet Kathy Wegman an environmental horticulturist who specializes in wildlife habitat for golf courses. A new clutch of bluebirds was born at Bethpage almost a week ago and the adults now are busily feeding them at their nest boxes. This is prime watching time for these 7-inch, 1.1-ounce bluebirds. The male has a bright blue head, back and tail with a rich rust colored breast. The female’s blues are drabber as is the rust breast while her head is a grayish dull white.

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Above a female bluebird with a snack for her nestlings.
Above a female bluebird with a snack for her nestlings.

Landing On ‘Velvet’ 

First we drive around in a golf cart visiting two nest boxes, getting me familiar with the route and roads and carefully going over a map. Kathy then gives me the golf cart and I’m on my own. With no real idea of where I’m going, I try thinking of it as a one person safari. However on real safaris, big herds of wildebeest, zebras or giraffe are always in the background. Here there are golfers on fairways, which up to now I thought was a supermarket chain with a store in Plainview.

Above a bluebird feather.
Above a bluebird feather.

All I know about bluebirds is they are shy, secretive and I’ve not seen them before. I want photographs. To photograph birds well you need to know their habits well. That becomes my #1 job. The bluebirds land silently. Magically, they appear on the box, a nearby tree or the grass as if they’ve landed on velvet.  Soundless. A female lands on the box near an old rusted pipe which matches the color of her breast. Three minutes later, she lands again, this time with a big yellow caterpillar. Seven minutes later mom appears again on an overhead branch. She goes there to see if there’s any danger perhaps from this human. Then she flies to the nest box with another big, juicy caterpillar. While I scan the trees again one appears out of nowhere. Stealthy.

A female bluebird with an insect for her nestlings.
A female bluebird with an insect for her nestlings.

It goes on like this for about fifty minutes with the food of choice being insects. She is busy as there may be 4-5 chicks in there. The rest of the morning I watch for mom’s approach getting a few pics. She flies to a tree branch with something green in her bill. I focus my binoculars on the nest box. She should be down in a minute but isn’t. This is so unpredictable! Later a bluebird is on top of the nest box with its head down. I mistake this for a hang dog look, thinking that the bird is tired.  However she flies down and snatches an insect or caterpillar for her nestlings. I start a silent count. From the time she lands, delivers and leaves the hole, it’s seven-seconds. When I return in two days that’s the time I’ll have with which to work for pics.

Back Again

Two days later it’s cool and cloudy with passing rain showers. By 8:30 AM I’ve driven the golf cart with minimal concern about getting lost parking it closer to the bluebird box with a clear view from the side. Twenty-minutes later I’ve gotten a dozen shots. Learning their behavior the other day was huge. A bluebird flies to a nearby tall tree, scrapes the bark probably getting an insect then swoops down in a long elegant arch. It walks around for a few seconds then enters the hole and quickly leaves. Other times a bird will land on a low branch and fly back and forth between low branches before landing. Standing outside the cart I begin to wonder if I’m making them wary.

I go into the cart and watch another come twenty minutes later. The bluebird puts its  body into the hole for a second and comes out lightning fast becoming a slate gray and pale rust form winging it in a milky sky. Within two minutes there are two more deliveries. When the second bluebird arrives it pauses at the hole putting its tail on the side to help brace itself just like a woodpecker. I get a few more visitors and note that they look around the box after landing. The speed at which they come and go suggests that they may not be bothered by me if I’m in the cart. Perhaps they don’t recognize the cart as a threat. This was the case in Africa when my wife and I went several years ago to watch large animals. They didn’t associate the range rover in which we and others were in with danger.

A Mishap

Starting at 10:01 AM I get three visitors within five minutes. They all begin in the same way. Out the corner of my eye is a flash of movement high in a tree and my senses go on ALERT. I switch from binoculars to my camera as the bluebird, wasting not a second, descends to the box. It walks around, goes to the hole, delivers the food and is gone into the woods more quickly than it came.  I manage to get off three shots which is a lot.

My camera’s been flashing that the battery is low for a half hour. Finally it quits.  While changing the battery I miss a delivery and then another and another. Twenty minutes later the spare battery is out of juice because I didn’t charge it. However I’m filled with satisfaction having gotten pics and learned something of bluebird behavior. Next year when the bluebirds again hatch I’ll be back.

A golfer is by some trees having hit his ball there and is preparing to hit it back on the rgreen. It occurs to me that I may have more in common with golfers than I thought. They are trying to hit a ball into a hole in the ground and I’ve been trying to anticipate and photograph a small bird going into a hole in a box. Pardon the pun, but different strokes for different folks.