Good morning. It’s 6 a.m. — let’s go for an early morning adventure in nature.

This morning, I am going to take you on a typical

weekly monitoring trip to one of our bluebird trails. 

Our Cumberland County Bluebird Club manages 18 bluebird trails consisting of 320 nest boxes. 

Today we will check the boxes on one of eight golf courses where we have nest boxes.

Bluebirds love golf courses because of the open area and short grass to spot and catch insects. 

On most golf courses we go early, before the golfers, so we can efficiently check all of the nest boxes without a delay to us or to the golfers.

It’s early, but it is a great time to be out, because we’ll see things that later risers will miss. The cart guys at the course know us and will have a golf cart ready. 

We’ll have the 3-ring binder for this course, to record what we find in each nest box. This specific trail has 16 boxes.

The sun has just been up for a short time, so the air is cool and the shadows are long. The only other people we will see in our hour-long trip are golf course workers and maybe a dog walker or two.

At the first nest box, we find just a couple of strands of dry grass in the bottom of the box. That is a sign that a male bluebird has deposited a few pieces of nesting material to try to convince the female to build a nest there. Next week we’ll expect to find a nest.

Further along the course, other nest boxes have partial nests, complete nests, eggs, and, in another week, babies.

Early morning is actually not the best time to monitor bluebird boxes, but it is about the only option on a busy golf course. Morning is when the mothers lay their eggs, one per day, and when they might need to keep eggs and babies warm.

We’ll open the boxes, quickly record what we see, and move away.

When we open the boxes, most mothers fly out, but they’ll return before we get 100 yards down the cart path.

Some mothers, especially tree swallows, sit tight on the nest. In those cases, we can’t count eggs, so we leave them quietly and hope to get a count of eggs or babies next week.

As we check other nest boxes, we might find bluebird, tree swallow or Carolina chickadee nests, eggs, and babies. All are native cavity-nesters, and we let all of those birds share the bluebird boxes. 

The nest of each species is different, and experienced monitors can usually tell what bird is going to build there from just a few shreds of material. 

Tree swallows and chickadees typically only have only one brood per year, so once their babies fledge, the nest box is then available for the bluebird’s second or third brood of the year.

The data from every nest box is tabulated at the end of the nesting season, and the results are sent to the North American Bluebird Society, along with data from around the country.

On this morning, of the 16 nest boxes, 15 had nests, most with eggs. Only one empty box … a great start!

But a morning of monitoring is not just about bluebirds. It is a time to enjoy all of the early morning nature.

Today, we might have to stop to let a mallard duck and her string of babies cross in front of us. The next few weeks will be a good time to see baby ducks on our rounds. The superintendent at this golf course told me earlier he normally notices that only about one in 10 baby ducks survive, due to predators like hawks, fox and snapping turtles. But apparently, just the right number of baby ducks survive to keep prey and predator species in balance.

At one hole, I notice a red-tailed hawk fly down and land on the middle of a fairway. This large hawk is big enough to catch squirrels and rabbits, but this morning it is hopping from place to place on the empty fairway picking up some kind insect off the grass. I had never seen that before.

A little farther on we see dark purple martins filling the sky. One homeowner has a well-maintained purple martin house with martins flying in and out. Most multi-compartment martin houses that you see are not well-kept and full of house sparrows. This is the best-used martin house that I have seen recently.

Many early mornings on the golf course we see deer, turtles, ducks, hawks — even otters or mink on occasion. We often see red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks and, on one location, we occasionally hear quail. 

It is the best time to be there for nature.

It is a very pleasant morning. April mornings can be cool, especially at 6 a.m. and riding a golf cart. 

We don’t mind, because in addition to checking and recording bluebird activity, we saw some beautiful sights, took some photos, enjoyed a nearly empty golf course, and were home by 8.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

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Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com

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