I've Got a Secret

by Rex Burress

A hummingbird was watching me as I sat on a bench along the river, seemingly suspicious that I was going to discover something it was hiding. It was one of the winter leftovers - an Anna’s Hummingbird that had foraged on the red-flowered eucalyptus during cold days - and I suspected it had lingered in the limbs to nest as I wondered exactly where that molded masterpiece was placed. Somewhere there was a golf-ball-sized construction of mosses, spider webs and lichens attached to a branch, but it surely was a secret for the bird.

The hummingbird’s secret made me think of one of those parading, departed, television shows called "I've Got a Secret," and I mused that all of the birds I see interacting along the wooded habitats have a secret as intense as human secrets. Each species makes the selection of a mate and a nesting site in secret, and you discover very few in their personal domain. Secrecy is the game’s name for most bird nesting activities, although there are exceptions, such as the hummingbird that built its nest on our porch swing bolt just outside our kitchen window one year! Maybe that pair appreciated the sugar-water Jo places for them, and they wanted to give us a show. But I haven’t seen one of their nests since.

Almost as small as the hummingbird is the Bushtit, that gnat-chaser that swarms through the winter thickets in large groups of 20 or 30, sticking together like a well-rehearsed regiment and gleaning the twigs of insect substance. They pair off in the spring to build their magnificent bag-like nest that usually hangs high in live oak branches and is rarely noticed, but this year Oroville bird watcher John Grow reported a Bushtit nest built in his grape arbor! Nature is continually full of surprises!

As I watched the river birds, I wondered what secret the Western Scrub-Jay was pursuing as it probed for a living. Somewhere there was a secret nest so well hidden few see it. Secretiveness is the word for wildlife trying to avoid predators, and the ornery jay, that is itself a predator of small birds and eggs, is no exception. A jay stick nest stashed away in a dense shrub – or within the dense leaves of our backyard plum tree one year – is norm for those birds trying to reproduce and survive. The plum tree nest had three youngsters hiding compactly – until the crow did some detective work and fleeced the best laid scheme of the hard-working jays. Its beak and talon out there, highly involved with secrecy and deception, and humankind is usually one of the suspects.

I saw the shy Green Heron erupt from the riparian cover, and I wondered where its nest was located. The larger egrets and herons are less secretive about their nests, building stick compounds in communal trees usually apart from predator intrusions – except raccoons invaded the rookery at Audubon Canyon Ranch one time, prompting the installation of tree-base screens.

Not many egg-eaters want to risk the sabers of that long-beaked bird. But I wonder about the Green Heron that is more of a loner. Where is its secret?

Equally secretive and shy is the Belted Kingfisher, not only prone to go chattering away if you as much as look at it, but unknown to the casual bird watcher, they dig a burrow into some high bank to hide their nest in darkness. There is no plastering a mud nest to bridge supports like the Cliff Swallow, but that diving perfectionist prefers the call of the wild and absolute obscure quarters for its eggs.

In the river two male mergansers were talking over the events of the day, and I knew that alongside the stream the hens were sitting on nests. Every year a few stay to hide nests along the waterway, just as some coots stick around the marshes rather than migrate. In the same sense, some Wood Ducks hang around California, especially when manmade boxes are offered for nesting.

Perhaps the greatest secret of all centers around the migratory waterfowl who forsake their wintertime rendevous places south of the Arctic to go winging northward in the springtime to conduct a secretive agenda in some wild waterlands. The Central Valley marshlands of California that billowed with a million ducks and geese in the winter become subtly silent in the spring when the restless birds undergo the transformation of habitats. The glorious freedom of wings has carried them to a land of new secrets that not one will reveal.

The disappearance of the waterfowl is especially apparent at Lake Merritt in Oakland as all those seasonal diving ducks depart – the scaups and goldeneye and Bufflehead and Canvasbacks – all taken away by their inner secret spirits that only they know. There is a plan however it is constructed in their brains and senses; a procedure that will propel them into the secrecy of reproduction and survival.

Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge will not be totally devoid of bird activity, because a sizable concentration of Canada Geese have taken up residence and stick around to laser the lawns and fleece friendly feeders, modifying that urge to go north, but in the spring, they will again participate in the secret of hidden nests on the bird islands of Lake Merritt. The Mallards of Lake Merritt also secrete their nests all over the city – one time building a nest on top of a skyscraper! They hide them around the Garden Center ponds and in lakeside vegetation. The drama of duck nests and ducklings is a yearly event often of outrageous proportions! Herons and gulls chase the babies, people scream, ducklings are devoured, new nests are built, and somehow, the species survives! Long live the birds and their secrets!

© 2003 Rex Burress
May 5, 2003