The hidden miracle of summer: Here comes a new feathered generation

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Early one morning on a bird walk in Cape May, N.J., our guide was excited to show us something exquisite: A tiny and all but hidden nest of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird sitting on a nest woven into a tree branch

We walked in utter silence, single file, through a swamp lined with trees and brambles. Then he came to a stop and set up a telescope. The nest was on a thin branch 20 feet overhead. Still, it took a while to spot the hummingbird – weighing about an ounce – sitting on a nest the size of a quarter, barely visible through the leaves.

The arrival of a new generation is taking place this summer almost entirely hidden from view.

Most birds don’t sing nearly as much as they go about their work of building nests, producing eggs and raising their young. They hide for obvious reasons: To protect their hatchlings from hazards, predators and the elements during their first fragile weeks.

And yet with a little luck — and the occasional guide who knows just where to look — we can catch a glimpse of this annual miracle. Here are some photos from our travels so far this nesting season:

 

More than 700 species breed in North America, starting in the late winter in the southernmost states and gradually moving north through the U.S. and into Canada over the spring and summer.

First comes the task of establishing a nest, and the location and design vary by species. Popular nesting materials include twigs and leaves, grasses, feathers, mud and spiderwebs. Trees tend to be a popular location, but some birds nest on the ground while others find a hole in a tree, a birdhouse, a building’s eaves, an artificial platform or even a cave in a cliff.

This is not easy work. You’d think the nests would be used over and over again, but this is seldom the case. Robins, Ospreys, Eagles and Swallows are among the exceptions. Some birds travel the equivalent of hundreds of miles gathering their materials — carting wood, straw, leaves, and sometimes whole branches to their construction sites:

 

Once there are eggs to shelter and keep warm, birds sit on the nest for weeks. A few males share nesting duties, and both will usually stay on constant patrol to fend off predators and protect their territory. It’s startling to witness small birds go up against much larger ones, pecking and screeching until their opponents simply give up. 

 

When the fledglings emerge from their shells, they tend to be blind, helpless and featherless. Then a whole new line of work begins for the parents — feeding, sheltering and eventually teaching their young about the world. Here’s a collection of this new generation, still learning how to fly, snatch insects and fish before it’s time to migrate south for the winter. Like adolescents everywhere, these birds seem eager to take on the world:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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