For the last two years we’ve had a pair of Pacific-slope Flycatchers (Empidonax difficilis) that, for reasons known only to them, insist on building nests on the house that seem doomed to failure.
Last spring, the pair nested on top of our porch light. The female laid four eggs, all of which hatched, but the very next day the babies were snatched by predators (we’re presuming Steller’s Jays, but the perpetrator was never conclusively identified).
Although we continued to hear the male’s position note call, that was the last we saw of the Flycatchers last year.
Then in May this year, we noticed the Flycatchers were back when for some bizarre reason they elected to construct a nest quite close to the ground, on our telephone wiring box on the side of the house. What could they be thinking building a nest there?!
The nestlings, remarkably, seemed to go undetected for five or six days, and their feathers were starting to grow in.
Then one Saturday morning, during an early June deluge of 3 inches of rain, I went out to be sure our gutter on the side of the house wasn’t overflowing into the nest, but found the nest was empty. A dead nestling was bloodied, on the ground below, and the other two were simply gone. So goes yet another episode of Predators & Prey at the farm.
Almost immediately, within a few days, we spotted a scruffy mess of spiderwebs and redwood litter being deposited on top of our front porch light again. Again, the female laid three perfect little eggs in the nest, and began incubating them earnestly, and we were sure we knew exactly how this episode would end.
On June 29th, the first nestling hatched, and by the next morning all three had popped from their shells.
Over the coming days we’d occasionally notice a parent flying in, with various flying insects as food, including termites, which caused me to mutter a little cheer, and each evening we could see through the window in the door that the female was settled on the nest for the night.
For as long as we could see the parents, we continued to use the back entrance to the house to avoid unnecessarily startling anyone, after a while we stopped paying much attention to the comings and goings on the porch.
After some 10 days had passed we were quite surprised to see there was still quite a lot of activity atop the light. Then one morning I noticed that the parents hadn’t been around at all. I suspected the worst. I went outside the front door, and very slowly and carefully raised the camera over my head, hoping the resulting photograph would be in focus. Well, it wasn’t quite, but it was enough to see these young birds seemed to be well feathered!
These nestlings were the most far along of any of the nestlings we’d seen so far. Would they actually make it? Could this nest survive? We could only wait and see.
By day 12 it was clear there was no more room on top of the light. The nest had become stretched and flattened so that part of it now extended under the cross-bar to the opposite edge of the lamp, and we could see one nestling on that side on its own. Heads were periodically seen bobbing about, and even a little preening activity was seen. Again, with no parents in sight (even though I’m sure they were watching), I managed to sneak out the door, quickly snapped a photo over the top of my head, and came back inside to see the results.
I love this photo, those are some SERIOUS eyebrows! Their eyes were clearly open, and it was looking like it wouldn’t be too long before they’d be ready to leave.
After that day I left them completely alone. The last thing I wanted to do, as they’d made it this far, was to flush them prematurely.
Crossing my fingers that this brood would succeed, I kept an occasional eye on the floor of the porch for the next couple of days, as it seemed likely that with all the wiggling about on top of the light, someone was bound to get pushed off. It’s pretty slick up there, and sure enough, two days later, late Wednesday afternoon, I looked out the window, and there it was.
Our first ‘fledgling’, grounded on the porch floor, but seemingly unharmed.
I left it alone, as I knew the parents were still around, but kept a watchful eye. It’s a good thing nobody was about to see a crazy woman in the front yard, crouching in the shrubbery, clutching a camera with a 300mm lens pointed at the front of the house!
After about 15 minutes, the parents returned, and fed the two remaining nestlings on the light, and just as the male parent flew off, this ball of fuzz that had been sitting on its haunches on the floor, launched itself, albeit somewhat awkwardly, across the front garden to a low hanging branch on a coast live oak, with the female parent in hot pursuit! How did we go from bushy eyebrows to flying in just 48 hours? I lost sight of the fledgling among the leaves in the tree, but observed both parents zipping back and forth for a while between the porch and the oak.
Turning my attention back to the porch light, we now had a second would-be-fledgling perched on top of the crossbar on the lamp, preening. All of a sudden, the male parent flew in, and for some absurd reason landed right on top of the youngster! Literally, the male was standing right on the little one’s back! What the…? Feet and feathers started flailing about, and I watched as the young Flycatcher finally lost its footing, and slid over the far edge of the lamp. I winced, but without even touching the floor, it righted itself, and launched out toward the workshop roof.
By now it was almost 7:30 PM, and the light was fading as the sun dipped behind the trees. As the fledgling sat there alone for a few minutes, I wondered how safe this youngster would be alone out on the middle of the roof. No sooner had that thought entered my mind, than one of the parents showed up, offered a meal, and both took off toward a nearby bay laurel tree, hopefully out of sight of night predators.
That left one nestling on top of the light, as the sun went down, and I hoped it would stay put until morning, as by now it was almost dark.
The next morning, I looked out through the window, and I couldn’t see any sign of the little one on top of the lamp.
Clearly I was too late to see this one fledge, and just hoped that its first flight was a success…but, just as I was getting ready to leave to run an errand, I spotted this attached to the side of my truck!
Presumably this is fledgling number three, based on how low to the ground it was. My truck wasn’t parked very far from the front steps, and of all the places to land, it picked this slick surface. Although I must admit, with as dirty as my truck is at the moment, that probably improved its footing somewhat.
I put my errand on hold, and watched for a bit to see if the parents were about, and of course they were, and keeping a close eye out. Eventually one of the parents zipped by, and actually bumped the youngster off of my truck, and down into some Spanish lavender under one of our front windows, where I finally lost track of it, because really, I did have an awful lot to get done that day, and hadn’t factored fledgling-watching into that day’s schedule!
So, despite two previous nest failures, and being completely convinced these youngters would meet a similar fate, we’re so happy to say…we were wrong. Congratulations little Flycatchers, the third time really was the charm!