“I’ve got good news for you,” Bill Simms announced as the Thursday Birders gathered under the portal at his ranch located 5.5 miles south of Chilili in the Manzano Mountains. “Come around to the back porch. You can sit in the shade and watch the hummingbirds while I talk.”
He reminded those who visited the ranch last summer that the nesting rate in their bluebird boxes was very low because of the extremely dry winter and spring. “This year our second nesting has been as successful as the first, and I expect between 200 and 210 Western Bluebirds to have fledged by the end of the summer,” he said excitedly.
A friend gave him his first nesting box just prior to their move to New Mexico in 1995. He enjoyed watching the nesting process and began adding additional boxes. “Pretty soon I had 15, then 30, and now I have 47,” he told us as he passed around a map of his property with the locations of all of the boxes plotted.
Ash-throated Flycatchers took up residence in a few of the boxes. “Usually the bluebirds arrive first and have their pick of the boxes. The flycatchers arrive later and take the ones that are left,” Bill relayed. “However, this year they both arrived at the same time and some competition ensued.” He told us about one box that was coveted by both species. He was surprised when they solved the problem by sharing the nest box. The bluebird laid her eggs, and then the flycatcher deposited her eggs next to the bluebird eggs.
Both sets of parents tended the eggs. Unfortunately, Bill arrived one day to check the boxes and all of the eggs were gone. He wasn’t sure who the predator was.
Bill checks each of the 47 boxes weekly and records his findings on a spreadsheet, noting the status of nest-building, number of eggs laid and dates hatched and fledged.
“Follow me,” he invited, “and we can go check some boxes.”
“These will be gone by the end of the day,” Bill commented as he loosened the screw and opened the lid of the first box. One by one we approached the box and peered inside. Four fluffy babies lay snuggled together in a circle in their neat, cupped-shaped nest and peered up at us. A parent watched vigilantly from the top of a nearby conifer.
Bill swung the lid back and tightened the screw. We moved onto another box. “They are all dead,” Bill said as he looked inside. When he finds dead birds in the box, he usually suspects that something happened to the parents.
As we approached the third box, we could see a parent perched nearby with an insect dangling from its bill. This box had one dead bird, but the rest seemed to be thriving. We removed the dead bird and quickly reassembled the box so the waiting parent could deliver food to the remaining chicks.
The fourth box had a healthy clutch which also was ready to fledge.
Thanks to the efforts of individuals like Bill, Western Bluebirds have made a comeback in the Manzano Mountains.
The group then headed down the road to Bonnie Long’s house to share a potluck lunch. Bonnie’s 10 hummingbird feeders were a buzz and kept us captivated. Ray Reed captured the following wonderful photos: