Cover Photo Credit: Red-Winged Blackbird by Catherine Mullhaupt/Audubon Photography Awards

Summer means baby birds. Our permanent and summer residents have built nests literally everywhere—eaves, crooks of trees, shrubs and thickets, hollows, the open ends of pipes, and even on the ground—with the hope of carrying on their lives, life, despite the odds. And if you’re keen-eyed and know what to look for, you can witness the spectacle.

Here are a few things to know about nesting birds. First of all, the parents work really hard, sometimes one and sometimes both. Not only do they fly back and forth to the nest to feed innumerable times a day, but they also carry the nestlings’ fecal sacs—neat little packets of poop encased in a thin membrane—far from the nest site so as not to give away its location to predators. So if you see an adult bird flying with something white in its beak, you know they have a nest nearby. Incidentally the nestlings keep the nest tidy by instinctively backing their rear to the nest edge to poop.

Common Grackle Nest

Common Grackle nest

Birds begin life as wobbly, sleepy neonates—the pink, featherless stage—shooting up like rockets mouths open wide, called gaping, at the slightest jostle of the nest and vocalizing. As a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator with Northeast Kansas Wildlife Rescue, I’ve raised my share of baby birds, and the grackle mouth you’re seeing here is a perfect example of the gape grackle parents are all too familiar with. As in much of life the loudest and biggest mouth often wins the prize. On your walks, listen for these begging sounds, high-pitched, rhythmic, frantic patterns that end as abruptly as they began. Soon babies begin growing feathers, and settle into their individual renditions of calls, the crucial way they will stay in contact once they leave the nest. Robin babies say per-peep! Grackles make a raspy clack call. Blue Jay nestlings make a high, rising whine and then sound like they’re being strangled when the food goes in.

Gaping Common Grackle Birding Blog

Gaping Common Grackle fledgling. Photo by Lisa Grossman

Once birds leave the nest, or fledge, they become fledglings, a thrilling and nerve-racking time for both babies and adults, as the babies initially don’t fly very well but bumble and hop along. (Please know though, if an adult bird is nearby, the fledglings stand the best chance of surviving with them, so resist the urge to step in and rescue. Oh, and keep your cats inside and always.) Whether the fledglings follow the parents or vice versa, over the next several weeks, the young grow, strengthen flight muscles, and learn about what to eat and how to survive in our beautiful corner of northeast Kansas.

If you’re quiet and observant at the following places, you’re sure to see some parenting.


Baker Wetlands

Baker Wetlands in the Summer birding

You can enter either from the Discovery Center side or the Haskell side (view map here), which I prefer since there are better nesting opportunities for songbirds. There is plenty of parking in either place. The wetlands is a veritable daycare of babies right now. On a recent walk west from the Haskell entrance, I saw an adult grackle fly across the path with what appeared to be four adults close on its heels. Fledglings often look like perfectly capable adults; they just can’t lose the parent while they’re still learning or they’re sunk.

Red Winged Blackbirds nest

The wetlands is also a nursery for red-winged blackbirds. The blurry photo (sorry) here shows the neonate version of the three nestlings being fed by a parent in bolstering cattails intricately woven together for support. I’ve made a basket before, and trust me, it isn’t easy. In my opinion, nests are works of art, displaying both perfect form and function.

Photo Credit: Mourning Dove and Chick by Douglas Croft/Audubon Photography Awards

Photo Credit: Mourning Dove and Chick by Douglas Croft/Audubon Photography Awards

Here’s a complete list of what I saw on a recent visit: Mourning Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, American Kestrel, Bell’s Vireos, a Warbling Vireo, Black-capped Chickadees, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, American Goldfinches, Yellow-breasted Chats, Orchard Orioles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Common Yellowthroats, Northern Cardinals, and Indigo Buntings.


Burroughs Creek Trail

Burroughs Creek Trail Bike Birding Blog

Enter off of 11th Street near Don’s Auto by bike or on foot or park at the small lot just east of 23rd Street and Barker. View a map of the trail here. This lovely corridor of trees provides a great spot for nesting birds, buffered as it is from traffic and noise. The plentiful mulberry trees make foraging easy for busy parents.

Photo Credit: Northern Cardinal by C. Denise Maples/Audubon Photography Awards

Photo Credit: Northern Cardinal by C. Denise Maples/Audubon Photography Awards

On a recent bike ride, I heard begging Common Grackles, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and American Robins and saw plenty of purple poop splats along the paved trail. Here is a complete list of what I saw and heard: House Wren, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Doves, Common Grackles, American Crows, House Finches, Indigo Buntings, Great-crested Flycatchers, Chickadees, and Titmice.


Constant Park

230 West 6th Street

Photo Credit: Canada Geese by Zoe Harman/Audubon Photography Awards

Photo Credit: Canada Geese by Zoe Harman/Audubon Photography Awards

Follow the sidewalks North from the crosswalk at 6th and Vermont. This big stretch of riverside open lawn is irresistible to Canada Geese families. Each spring and early summer, if flooding rains haven’t swelled the Kansas River and washed out their nests, mixed families of adults and goslings wander about plucking grass and socializing. (My only advice is wear shoes you don’t care about.) If you keep a polite distance, you’ll be able to observe the greenish-tinged goslings learning what to eat, what to avoid, where to go, and how fast to get there. By mid to late June, the goslings may look like adults, but they still have a lot to learn. Look for the individuals who look like they don’t quite have a complete handle on things yet, and you’ve found your goslings.

Don’t forget to check the Lawrence Bird Alliance website for upcoming field trips and educational programs!