Phoebe summer

It has been more than two months since I wrote about the return of Eastern Phoebes to a nest on our house, and amid the busyness of spring and summer, I’ve been remiss in not reporting what transpired.

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These two chicks stayed in the tree near the nest long enough for us to snap their photo on May 29.

I’m pleased to say that we are having another Phoebe summer, just like the ones we had enjoyed before the last few seasons when these favorite birds arrived on schedule, but did not produce families. In May, the nest on the stone façade of the house just under the soffit yielded two chicks, who lingered long enough after fledging to allow me to snap their photo on the 29th.

Even better, as of this writing, the adults are feeding another family of what looks to be at least three chicks. For several weeks now, the parents have been sallying between garden and nest, snatching bugs and ferrying them back to gaping beaks. Those days appear to be numbered, however. In just the last week, the bulging mass of beaks and feathers we had been observing is now a clearly defined family that is outgrowing the nest and will soon be urged to depart.

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The porch railing post has been a favorite stopping-off point for the adults before they take food to the nest.

That rite of passage always is tinged with sadness for us because we know we won’t be seeing these beloved birds as often, but the days leading to it are pure delight. Throughout the day and in the evening, we love watching the adults fly into the garden, perch on branches, arbors, and posts, stop by the bird bath, or use the porch railing as a segue between their little nursery and the food supply. As they move about, they seem to become accustomed to our presence, allowing us to train the camera lens on them or weed and water the garden while they are in it, provided we keep a respectable distance.

Before the last few chick-less seasons and after several consecutive years of Phoebe summers, we had come to take the presence of these charming flycatchers for granted. This year, having experienced drought, we are reveling in the joy of abundance, enjoying every sighting of a drab brown-and-white Phoebe, whether we are walking outside, sitting on the screened porch, or peering through the kitchen window.

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Time to leave? This shot taken on July 7 clearly shows the chicks are outgrowing the nest.

We are hardly the first to discover that Phoebes make companionable and beneficial seasonal guests. In Birds of America, a treasured early 20th-century book we keep alongside our Sibley Guide to Birds, George Gladden writes, “ . . . the [Eastern Phoebe’s] confiding ways and gentle manners have won the real affection of its human neighbors, who should realize as well that it is very useful as a destroyer of noxious insects.” Gladden also praises the Phoebe’s skill and speed in pursuing its prey and provides this apt description of its movements: “Like its relatives it generally selects a perch on a dead limb or fencepost whence it has an unobstructed view of the immediate surroundings, and it is likely to return to this perch after each darting sally.”

Lest anyone even think of discouraging these migrants when they build their nests near human habitations, he writes: “Let the Phoebe remain just where it is. Let it occupy the orchard, the garden, the dooryard, and build its nest in the barn, the carriage house, or the shed. It pays ample rent for its accommodations.”

I couldn’t agree more. From its insistent call in the spring to its aerial feats, bobbing tail, and appetite for pesky insects, the Phoebe brings us many gifts, not the least of which is the window it opens into a world designed to work all things to the good.

Faith, hope, and Phoebes

It’s little more than a cluster of mud, moss, and twigs, but to me, it is cause for joy, and not a little excitement.

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This year’s Phoebe outside my office window.

An Eastern Phoebe nest has been affixed to the stone on the front of our house under a soffit for several years now, serving as a marker of spring when it is visited by the brown-and-white flycatchers and refurbished for a new brood.

This year, the first Phoebe arrived the week before last and since has been insistently calling “FEE-bee! FEE-bee!” in the morning, afternoon, and evening, sometimes stopping outside my office window to bob his tail and announce his presence. One morning last week, another flash of brown revealed he has a mate and that she is shoring up the remains of the old nest. We can already see the evidence of this in the fresh mud, moss, and bits of vine she has applied as she ferries material from the pond and the garden to the nest.

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Nest-refurbishing in progress.

Our hope, of course, is that these industrious little birds who have worked their way into our hearts will succeed in raising a family like those we have seen in past years — though not the last two. The year before last, we suspect that a predator bird ravaged the nest and sent the Phoebes fleeing. Later, they began building new nests in two alternate locations, finishing one that still sits atop a post on our wood-storage unit, but despite some nest-sitting, no little Phoebes ever emerged from it.

Last year, the Phoebes again abandoned the nest on the house, this time early in the breeding season after a Brown-headed Cowbird had been seen nearby. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and leave them to raise their young to the detriment of the host bird’s own offspring. Although we saw the Phoebes occasionally later in the season, there was no sign that they had established another home nearby.

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Time to fledge. Phoebe chicks getting too big for the nest in June, 2012.

After several consecutive years of watching these delightful birds raise their families, we had almost come to expect that we would spend our summer evenings on the front porch watching the adults swoop down in the garden to catch insects and fly them back to the waiting mouths of their chicks. While working outside and passing by the site, we also had become accustomed to the sight of little heads popping up and their bodies growing to the point that they were practically spilling out of the nest as the day of departure approached. One year, after the chicks fledged, and thanks to my husband’s keen eye, we even were able to spy the entire family in the woods through our binoculars and spotting scope.

Although the Phoebe is not a “pretty bird” like the Northern Flickers and Red-headed Woodpeckers who frequent our woods or the colorful warblers who pass through during the spring migration, its dogged, no-nonsense habits have endeared it to us. And for the privilege of being in its company, we are more than happy to provide it with an environment abounding in the insects that comprise its diet

In her enchanting book, Letters from Eden, Julie Zickefoose, who is so fond of this bird that she named her daughter Phoebe, writes that to her, the Phoebe “embodies bird spirit” in its constant motion and charm. I heartily concur and would add that underneath the Phoebe’s unadorned appearance seems to beat the heart of an indefatigable warrior with perseverance in its veins.  For that, we love these birds in the same way we love people who have little in the way of looks or sparkle to offer the world, but whose virtue most likely is keeping everything around us intact.

In this, they remind us of faith that is unseen yet is the assurance of things hoped for. So it is that each spring, the Phoebe beckons us to believe in possibilities and to watch for their fulfillment.

The best of the birds:  A post about spring birds is a great opportunity to include a plug for the Biggest Week in American Birding, which takes place May 8-17 in northwest Ohio. If you can get to this area, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” next month, you will not only see some amazing birds showing off their spring colors, but you will meet some wonderful people.