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The Flycatcher Cam Part 1

What goes on inside a birdhouse:

I’d bet most folks reading this column have at least one birdhouse in their yard, and maybe two. Sometimes birds will use our boxes and sometimes they won’t. Don’t ask me why. But even when they do use them, there isn’t a lot of action to observe. Oh, sure, we sporadically see the adults going in and out of the box, but that’s it. We don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors. Perhaps most people don’t care what happens inside a birdhouse, but I do. So, a few years ago I placed a small video camera inside a chickadee box, hooked it up to a TV and watched the baby birds grow up. It was awesome. The next year, for the sake of variety, I moved the camera into a different box, one that was built for Great Crested Flycatchers. Here’s what happened. (If you aren’t familiar with Great Crested Flycatchers, no worries. I’ll fill you in later.)

Putting a video camera in a birdhouse is a fun thing to do, but it’s also a bit of a crapshoot. There is no guarantee the box will get a tenant. To hedge my bet, I selected a box that had been successfully used by flycatchers the year before. This was a good idea…I thought. It’s too bad nobody told the flycatchers. They didn’t return the following year. Nuts! I waited for the next summer and once again, nothin’. This year (2018) didn’t look good either. Great Crested Flycatchers were building nests all around town, but none were in my yard, and the season was getting late. Then, early one morning in mid-June, I awoke to the sound of “wheep,” the flycatcher’s signature call. I hopped out of bed and saw a female with her mouth filled with grass, and she was sitting on top of the birdhouse. Wahoo!

I raced downstairs to the living room yelling, “Wake up! The flycatchers are in the box!” I turned on the TV. (I had wanted the camera to be connected to the TV in the bedroom, but my wife vetoed that idea. She’s so old fashioned.) As the TV came on, we saw…nothing, just a blank screen. What the heck? I had waited three years for the birds to return and now the camera wasn’t working? After a bit of troubleshooting I discovered the problem. I had run the thin cable through my wife’s garden and she apparently thought it was an invasive vine, and promptly cut it. (Either that or she wanted to make sure I didn’t connect it to the TV in the bedroom.) I quickly fixed the cable, turned the TV back on and bingo! There was the nest. Yay! For the next month I would be spending all of my free time sitting in my living room…watching my own personal nest channel.

It may come as a surprise to some Cape Codders, but Great Crested Flycatchers are fairly common backyard birds. But since they are only here in the summer and tend to stay in the trees and never come to feeders, they are often overlooked. However, if you put out the right kind of birdhouse and get lucky, you could have a family of these funky flycatchers nesting in your yard. As their name implies, flycatchers earn their living by picking off flying insects. They are about the size of a catbird, have yellow on the belly, rufous on their wings and tail, and a crest when they are excited. But don’t expect to see a cardinal-style crest. This flycatcher’s crest looks more like “hat hair” than a true crest. And even though the sexes look identical, there is an easy way to tell the two birds apart: during the breeding season, the female is the one doing all the work. Sorry guys, but it’s true.

For days we watched the female carry loads of nesting material into the box. After each load she would wiggle her body all around in order to form a cup (my wife demonstrates it better than I can describe it). One of the most entertaining parts of the building process was when this particular female arrived with so much material stuffed in her beak that she couldn’t see where she was going. She kept flying around the box and bumping into the sides, but couldn’t find the entrance hole and was too stubborn to spit out some of the stuff. It was pretty funny…like watching Jerry Lewis carrying a stack of pizza boxes or a dog trying to go through a dog door with a big pillow in its mouth. Meanwhile, the male was sitting on a nearby branch, wondering what kind of crazy lady he had gotten himself involved with. Eventually, she found her way inside, distributed the material and did some serious body wiggling.

After the nest was completed, both flycatchers disappeared. This was a little concerning for the people (us) watching things on TV. Had the birds bailed on us? Was it too late in the season for them to raise a family? Was this a dry run for next year? As day one turned into day four, there were no signs of the happy couple. Hmm. Then, the next morning I woke up, turned on the TV and saw an egg. Phew! The following day there was a second egg. And even though the female wasn’t staying in the nest, I wasn’t worried. Most songbirds don’t begin incubating right away. Why is that, you ask? The female is only able to lay one egg per day, but she doesn’t start incubating until the entire clutch has been laid. This insures all the eggs will hatch at roughly the same time and thus there won’t be any runts. On the morning of day five, we counted five eggs. Would there be more? No, there wouldn’t. Later in the day the female moved in for the duration. The egg laying was now over and the incubation process was about to begin. Stay tuned.