Two Fridays ago, our research team headed into the field, eagerly anticipating the prospect of Purity ice cream at the Lab of Ornithology’s social that afternoon. Little did we know that we were in for a very different (and as much as we love Purity ice cream), even better, treat.
Opening up what we’ve termed our “nest contents” spreadsheet in Excel, we briefly scanned our timeline to gauge the approximate time of hatching for our only active Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) nest at the time. The Scarlet Tanager account on BNA (the Birds of North America Online) describes departure from the nest on day 9 or 10 after hatching; by our rough calculations, the fledglings at our nest of focus would either be near the nest, already out and begging for food, or in the nest, close to fluttering out. With that in mind, Jen and I decided to head out for a two-hour nest watch, lugging – just in case – the HDV camera lent to our team by Macaulay.
While Eric and Tim went in search of new nests and juveniles, the two of us settled down in a spot where we could get a clear view of the nest (SCTA5 is notorious for being extremely well-hidden). After focusing the video camera on the delicate, saucer-shaped nest far above our heads, we started the watch. The first 30 minutes or so were much like any other day of nest watching involving parental care of nestlings – one parent at a time arrived to the nest at varying time intervals – the only exception, however, was that within that first half hour at SCTA5, only the male visited the nest.
For a brief (and of course, always exciting!) snapshot of our nest watch that day:
At 10:55 AM, as the parents were out foraging, there was some slight movement on the nest.
At 11:01 AM, the male was singing softly as the female called in the under-story, on a branch remarkably close to the observer – both aspects being atypical for the behavior of a female tanager while foraging for her nestlings.
For the next five minutes, the female gradually moved closer and closer to the forest floor directly below the nest, continuously chck-brrring.
At 11:05 AM, sounds that seemed to be begging calls were heard. The male and female continued to sing and call until suddenly, there was a small flash of a fluffy grey bundle scurrying towards a log.
Yes, indeed – it was a Scarlet Tanager fledging, our first one seen straight out of the nest.
The HDV camera Jen and I had luckily brought out was quickly trained on the fledgling, who was remarkably agile. He was able to make his way across the forest floor fairly quickly and was capable of short, fluttery flights. As Jen and I followed him from one log to another, he eventually tried to move up along a small sapling – an evolutionarily helpful instinct for avoiding predators.
As we were wholly engrossed in our careful stalking of the fledging, we almost forgot to call Tim and Eric to join us. When they finally arrived, armed with a Marantz audio recorder, an extra battery for the camera, and an additional tape for the video camera, our small but extremely excited fan club for the fledging was complete.
Our team spent the next five hours collecting digital media on the fledging, who finally decided to stay on a thin sapling branch (which oscillated up and down every time the male tanager came in to feed his fledgling, leading to some adjustments with the video camera). In the course of those five hours (time does fly when you have a fledgling to occupy your thoughts), Eric found another young Scarlet Tanager fledgling about 6 meters up a maple. This second fledgling was being fed by the female in the territory, indicative of a rather common practice among parent birds of splitting up feeding duties among their fledged young.
At the end of the field day, we reluctantly left the SCTA5 territory and headed back to the data trailer with our photos, videos, audio recordings, and of course, some lasting memories – perhaps not of ice cream, but certainly of a very endearing fledgling.