In the early spring of 2012 I was very fortunate to be able to closely observe the lives of a family of Eastern Bluebirds. I had just upgraded my camera to a Nikon DSLR and one of the lenses I purchased was a 70-300mm zoom lens. Looking for a subject to test the lens, I headed for one of the nearby lakeside parks of Lake Lewisville.
Arrowhead Park is not a large park but it is an interesting one with craggy oak trees, many different plants and a variety of wild birds. For no particular reason, most of my previous visits to Arrowhead had been in the wintertime. Several times while exploring the park I had seen a flash of bright blue out of the corner of my eye, the bird always just out of sight as I turned to get a better view. I didn’t know what kind of bird I was seeing in those brief glimpses but I had ruled out blue jays since they are so gregarious and noisy and, therefore, easily seen. Eastern Bluebirds are not rare in North Texas; however I had only one previous sighting and wondered if they were responsible for creating the mysterious blue flashes.
On this trip to Arrowhead Park I certainly had no expectations of seeing an Eastern Bluebird and wasn’t even thinking of photographing birds at all. After arriving at the park, I pulled my car off the road and, while sitting in the car, began shooting different trees and one of the birdhouses. I was testing different camera and lens settings and was admiring the photographic results when I saw a flash of blue in my peripheral vision. I turned to see a male bluebird as he was flitting back and forth in the branches of a nearby tree. Not wanting to frighten the bird away, I sat unmoving in my car and didn’t attempt any photos, being simply content to watch the bluebird and admire his coloring.
Eventually I began to slowly move and position the camera. Although the bluebird kept a wary eye on me, he was not deterred by my presence and went about his business hopping through the branches of the tree and making short flights to the birdhouse. Gradually I came to realize that my car was acting as a blind and was allowing me to shoot photos and use binoculars without disturbing the bird. After about an hour I decided to leave, counting myself lucky to have finally solved the mystery of the blue flashes.
Boy Meets Girl
The next weekend I returned to Arrowhead Park not really expecting to see the bluebird again. I parked off the road near the same birdhouse and after a few minutes a male bluebird landed on its roof. Having seen a bluebird for only the second time the previous weekend I couldn’t tell if it was the same bird but he looked very similar. He was curious and would tilt his head quizzically and watch me from the roof of the birdhouse or from the branches of a nearby tree. I had been watching him for about 30 minutes when a second bird landed nearby. This bird was not as colorful but did have the same shape and color patterns. I realized I was looking at a female bluebird!
The two birds noticed each other and began chirping back and forth. They made several brief flights together often landing next to each other, pausing for a few moments and then flying off again. After about an hour of this behavior, they disappeared and I did not see them again. I left the park and went home to review the photos I had taken. Although I had some nice shots, I realized that in order to shoot high quality photos of such tiny birds I would either need a lens with more magnification or I would need to get closer. Getting closer seemed problematic due to the location of the birdhouse and the fact that I did not want to disturb the birds by parking a car within close proximity. I had been parking approximately 50 feet from the bird house and this seemed to be about the minimum distance the birds would tolerate.
When I returned the following weekend I found the two birds energetically engaged in nest-building. In alternating sequence, the male would arrive at the birdhouse with sprigs of grass in his beak to be followed shortly thereafter by the female. While perching at the circular entrance hole of the birdhouse, the birds would poke their heads (and sometimes bodies) inside and carefully place the nesting materials. When the male would fly off the female would appear, repeating the same sequence with her grass and leaves. This activity continued for about an hour; then, like the previous weekend, the birds abruptly vanished.
I had been sitting in my car on the side of the road for approximately 2 hours. The temperatures had been cool and there were very few, if any, people in the park. An SUV approached and as it neared I could see that it was a park ranger. The park ranger was very cordial and friendly but informed me that I was not allowed to park my car on the side of road. This news presented a problem. My car, while acting as an effective blind, had also provided a comfortable and stable environment for holding the camera and taking photos. I needed a solution because I did not believe that the bluebirds would tolerate my unshielded presence so close to their home. I went to a local sporting goods store and discovered the answer – a small, portable, camouflaged hunting blind.
The birdhouse was very quiet when I returned the next weekend. In fact, things were so quiet and still that I was afraid that something had happened to the birds. I pulled my new bird blind from the trunk of the car and approached the birdhouse to begin setting it up. I realized immediately that the bird blind would allow me to get much closer than I ever had been able to get with my car. After setting up the blind, I sat and waited. After about 45 minutes, the male bluebird flew to the small tree next to the birdhouse. The female lifted her head from within the birdhouse, hopped to the opening and flew out. No movement and no sound came from within. After a time, a Carolina Chickadee flew to the entrance of the birdhouse. In a flash of bright blue, the male bluebird charged the chickadee and frightened the “intruder” away. I saw this same protective behavior repeated when a small Bewick’s Wren landed, unsuspecting, on the roof of the birdhouse. Approximately 15 minutes after having departed, the female returned to the birdhouse and hopped back in. The male disappeared shortly thereafter and I did not see any more activity during that visit.
My visit the following weekend was similarly quiet although I did have one interesting discovery. Eastern Bluebirds have a very distinctive call. The Audubon Birds application for iPhone describes it as follows: “Call a liquid and musical turee or queedle. Song a soft melodious warble.” To me it sounds like a bubbling chirp that starts high and trails off quietly, a very pleasant song. As I was sitting in my bird blind, I could hear several different bluebirds calling in the distance. On a whim, I pulled out my iPhone and turned up the volume. I started the Audubon Birds application and played a couple of the bluebird songs and calls. Almost at once the male bluebird appeared. He flew to the birdhouse hole and frantically looked all around for the would-be intruder. He checked inside the birdhouse to ensure that everything was ok. After being satisfied that no threat was imminent, the male bluebird flew away. I tried the same experiment again about thirty minutes later and saw the same frantic, protective behavior displayed by the male. Not wanting to upset the bluebird family and unintentionally cause a problem, I did not play the bluebird calls again within such close proximity to their home.
Things were very different when I returned for my weekly visit on the next weekend. Spring was in the air; trees were budding, grass was growing and bluebird babies had arrived. The female was out of the birdhouse and both she and the male would take turns flying in worms for the babies to eat. Landing at the circular entrance to the birdhouse with a juicy worm for a meal, I would hear tiny excited “peep peep peep” sounds as both male and female reached inside to feed the babies. Sometimes the female would disappear inside the birdhouse and then fly out a short time later with a white ball of an unknown substance in her mouth. My suspicion is that this was waste from the babies and that the mother was simply cleaning house and flying it away. As I had seen in prior visits, all activity would cease at the birdhouse sometime around mid-morning.
My next weekly visit to the birdhouse was to be the last time that I would see the family together. The babies were much bigger and I was even able to get a shot of one of their very serious and stern-looking faces peering out at the world beyond their home. I stayed longer on this visit than on previous trips, relaxing in my bird blind even when the feeding activity stopped at the usual mid-morning time. I stepped out of the blind and walked the short distance to my car for some water. The park has several large parking lot lights to illuminate the area at night and power is delivered through elevated power lines. When I began the return trip I looked up and saw both the male and female bluebird sitting on the power line behind the blind watching the birdhouse. Sitting on the power line in this manner gave the birds a tremendous view of the birdhouse and also placed them out of my sight when seated in the car and the bird blind. It’s possible that when the morning routine ended each day that both birds would perch in a location such as this to protectively watch for any threat to their babies.
I didn’t see any new residents of the birdhouse on future visits to Arrowhead Park. I did, however, see and hear many bluebirds flying through the trees and brush. It is amazing how one can go through life ignorant and blind to the world around them. But, once eyes are opened, new perspective is gained. That’s how I feel about the bluebirds. Now that I know what to look for and where to look, I see them all the time. Now that I know what their unique song sounds like, I hear it frequently and it easily stands out from other birdsong in the forest. I feel truly fortunate to have had, for a brief time, this small look into the daily lives of these wild animals. Being able to watch the bluebirds meet, build a nest and raise their family was a true gift.
Additional information that may be of interest.
1. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds: Eastern Bluebird
2. Audubon Guides for iPhone: A Field Guide to North American Birds