Nestbox Duties Between Nestings: Part 1

Prothonotary Warbler in Nest Box


Once our native birds have completed their nesting seasons, it is time to winterize boxes for those that stay for any part of the winter, and it is also time to accomplish repairs, relocations, and other preparations for the next season. Boxes are winterized by plugging or closing vents with strips of felt weather stripping or tape in order to cut down on drafts in nest chambers. My bluebird boxes have quarter inch vents above the front and back panels. I try to close both vents by mid-October and open the front vent by March 15, and the back vent is opened by Memorial Day so the birds can have cross-ventilation during the hot summer. I fold tape over vents in my plastic nestjars so there are no sticky surfaces exposed to the birds. I maintain a nestjar trail in a riparian habitat that is available to wintering chickadees. After the 2018 season, I winterized 267 boxes by early November.

To avoid hunting seasons, I removed 64 boxes and their baffles from their posts by September 1 at two locations on the Delaware Wildlife Area. I also removed 45 nestjars and boxes from the Alum Creek Prothonotary Warbler project to avoid ice flows. After removal, I stored the nest structures at my home and I will reinstall them between mid-February through the first half of April, depending on seasonal nesting requirements of each target species.

Between December 10 and 13, I relocated and converted a 3 X 3 nestbox grid into two rows of four and five boxes. The grid had stood for more than 18 seasons since its 2001 installation. It was my first nestbox grid for Tree Swallows that I installed at the Olentangy Environmental Control Center (OECC), a Delaware County sewage treatment facility just north of Mt. Air along Rt. 315.

Twenty-nine boxes had stood at the treatment plant since 1983, and along with the new grid in 2001, I also added 12 boxes in the riparian zone along the Olentangy River for chickadees for an extra good reason. The North American Bluebird Society was planning to have their annual meeting in Columbus and field trips were going to be on the agenda. I wanted to promote the concept of Tree Swallow nestbox grids that were major parts of many ornithological research studies within the academic world at the time.

In 2001, I installed the grid at the mouth of the center’s wetland where the OECC’s treated water arrived after flowing through a channel and a pond before it flowed into the wetland. From the wetland, the water flowed on to join the Olentangy River. The wetland’s cattails, water lilies, and other plant life absorbed nutrients missed by the professional processes.

Cottonwood trees had sprouted in the drier part of the wetland where I planted my grid. Since 2001, some brush hogging has taken place during some drier years, but during some years, the ground became too soft with water for mowing machinery to stay on top. So as brush hogging was avoided, the cottonwoods grew to where they stand more than forty feet high today. I like the cottonwoods, but without brush hogging, brush and prickly woody plants started raking my arms and legs to the point that it was not fun to bleed for my hobby. The swallows on the other hand, had no problem as they continued to nest in the grid’s boxes, and the majestic cottonwoods did not deter nesting birds. For example, in 2001, the grid produced 42 Tree Swallows, compared to 34 swallows in 2018.

My initial plan was to relocate my boxes to a grassland west of the wetland. When I talked about my plan with Marshall Yarnell, the center’s manager, a new plan was proposed. The OECC was in the process of managing much of their eastern landscape into a prairie. Experts had been consulted and the ground was being treated to accept seeds representing more than one-hundred species of native prairie plants. It will take two years for the prairie to mature, and we decided that it will also be a good home to nine former grid boxes.

On December 10, I tried to plot a new grid at the new location but the tract of land turned out to be too narrow for three rows, even for spacings of 22 yards, the closest distance that promotes peace among nesting swallows. So, I settled on two rows of boxes, one row of four boxes parallel to a row of five boxes, all spaced at 22 yards. I drove painted stakes into the ground as I plotted the new locations.

For the next three days, I returned to the grid to pull three boxes per day to relocate them to their new sites.  The boxes were mounted on steel water pipes, so to pull them from the ground, I used my pipe wrench to bite the pipe so my post puller could have a solid connection to the post. After three or four bites and lifts, the post is freed from the ground. A post pounder is then used to pound the pipe into its new location.

During two of the four days that I worked, especially when I made noise pounding the pipes, I had a very engaged overseer, a mature Bald Eagle. The relocated boxes are directly across the river from the eagle nest at Highbanks Metro Park. The sycamore tree’s eagle nest used to belong to Red-tailed Hawks until the eagles moved in years ago. As I pounded the pipes into the ground, the eagle watched with intensity. It was perched above its nest with its body pointing southeast, but its face pointed to the west, straight at me. Yes, I was providing entertainment for our nation’s national bird.

I have much more to report on, but at the moment, I am most concerned with the fact that AC-1, Alum Creek’s most northern Osprey platform is down. A strong ice flow had busted its pole. Today, February 11, the lake is 2.7 feet above winter pool and the Osprey team won’t be able to work at the site until the water level falls back to 885 feet above sea level. Tomorrow, I plan to buy treated timbers that will be used to make the anchor post that will support the platform post, etc. The plan is to make a laminated, two-part pole like the most southern Osprey platform at Alum Creek, AC-4.

I will have more to report on in Part II. Conserve on!