Not all Nests are in Trees
May 25, 2018 ~ Birds are now going about the serious business of raising their babies. Adults may look rather ragged with worn feathers as they protect, teach and provide for their offspring. We tend to think about baby chicks raised in tree-top nests or cute little houses, but many birds build nests on the ground. Game birds, water fowl, and shorebirds don't have to worry about chicks falling out of a nest, but the youngsters are vulnerable to predators and getting lost from the group.
The baby Willet in the image above ran under our parked truck and then into the bushes. He is trying to get back to his calling parent. The world looks huge when you are a tiny chick.
What ground nesters have in common are large clutches and precocial chicks. All the babies are born with their eyes wide open and can run and swim by at least the second day if not before.
Common Gallinule or Moorhen chicks absolutely win the So-Ugly-they-are-Cute Award. These three were spotted recently at Brazos Bend State Park. The are probably less than a week old and both parents were nearby finding food for them. These newly hatched chicks can swim within a day and have spurs on their stubby wings that help them climb into the nest or grab onto vegetation.
The parents feed them while they are still this small. Moorhens build solid nests in the marsh near water and lay numerous eggs. Some literature says 5 to 13, some 8 to 11 but all agree they lay huge clutches which hatch in around 20 days. Mortality is high for ground nesters; it is not unusual to see an adult caring for just one or two half-grown chicks.
This female Mottled Duck at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge has had good luck so far this year. Several of the ducklings are out of the frame, she has at least a dozen. She builds a nest on the ground in dense stands of cordgrass and lines it with grass and feathers plucked from her breast. She lays 8 to 12 eggs, and covers them with grass litter when taking incubation breaks. I don't see a male in this photo and he is conspicuously absent in the literature as well, so she may be a single mom raising a brood alone.
This tiny Willet definitely had two parents watching out for him; we were repeatedly squawked at for getting too close (which is just being in sight!). The male Willet scrapes a nest site with his feet on the bare ground among grass or sand for the female to inspect. She either pulls vegetation in to hide the nest or they bring grasses to line the scrape. A few years ago I literally stumbled over a Willet nest with eggs in Surfside and it was right out in the open in short grass.
She lays 4 eggs and the incubation period is 22-29 days. Chicks are hatched with eyes open and leave the nest in the first days. The parents lead them around marshes and they can find their own food. Interesting that the female leaves the nest site after about 2 to 3 weeks and the male continues to care for the chicks. First flight is thought to be around 4 weeks.
At Brazoria, Black-necked Stilts nest out on the exposed islands. Here a male is warning some White Ibis away from the female sitting on the nest at the right. He repeatedly flew at them squawking and getting closer until they moved back into the water. The pair build the nest together and she lays 1 to 5 eggs. Incubation is 21 to 26 days and the chicks can leave the nest only hours after being hatched.
On the next trip we saw a couple of tiny chicks at the edge of the same island. The female was just out of camera range calling frantically (Black-necked Stilts ALWAYS sound frantic) when she spotted us standing on the bank. They are hard to see in the shallow water and mud flats, just tiny moving spots darting this way and that.
And this is a baby Clapper Rail hiding in the glasswort. They are black as chicks, but surprisingly hard to see in the shadows and reeds. There were three or four little guys about 25 feet off the road. Mom came out right away to yell at us and the chicks moved farther back in the brush.
Most of my shots of mom were with her head turned, only when I got home and downloaded the images did I see her left eye is damaged. It could be a defect or maybe she was injured. But, birds manage with deformities that do not affect their abilities to eat, fly and reproduce. Remember old BW did raise at least one brood and lived many years.
I finally got my big camera and tripod to watch the family. After sitting quietly for a while, the chicks came out and crossed the road to join mom on the other side. Clapper Rails build elaborate raised platforms to avoid flooding and construct domes to hide the nest from predators. She lays 2 to 16 eggs ( !!! ) and they share incubation duties. The chicks can leave the nest the next day and both parents show them what to eat by feeding them small bits.
When we first found them the female was warning us off; the male flew in from a distance and made his way to the edge of the road where they both yelled at us for a while. We sat still and finally they calmed down. As they walked away he called to her, and she stopped, lowered her body and extended her neck. I think it must have been an invitation because....
The above image is in case you didn't know how all these little chicks are made. Many of the ground nesters raise multiple broods each year with the older juveniles helping with the new hatchlings. And notice it was taken with my light-weight NIKKOR 300 f/4 PF and 1.7x TC. I was sitting on the crate and the series was all hand-held. It seems to 'hunt' for focus with the 1.7x TC in low light, but this was bright enough for a fast response. Bill had walked back to the truck to get another memory card and is still annoyed he missed the shot. It happens :-)
Did you see any baby chicks this year? Maybe a Killdeer? There is still time; the Purple Gallinules are nesting at Anahuac now and I bet the Moorhens will have another brood. Let me know in the comments below.