Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Indigo buntings, little brown bats spotted in area

Q An indigo bunting [is] a first for me in my garden in Williamstown. He has stayed around for days (about 10 so far) and this evening, joined the doves ground feeding. In the morning, he was up on the feeder near the male rose-breasted grosbeak (whom I saw for the first time today ... each year, like clockwork, a pair appears when the leaves on the maple trees open up.)

Members of our nesting colony of little brown bats came back around the time the bunting arrived. I have bat babies here every year. I know in Vermont, you can report colonies to the state Fish and Wildlife Department. Do you know if anyone in Western Massachusetts cares to know about summer colonies producing little brown bat babies?

— Lori, Williamstown

A I have seen indigo buntings before, but this is the first spring that I have seen one checking one of my empty feeders here in Pittsfield. Such an attractive bird, and with a rose-breasted grosbeak it must have been doubly exciting for you!

Yes, Massachusetts is tracking bats. If there is a colony of 10 or more bats on your property, email Jennifer Longsdorf, bat conservation project coordinator, at Include the address, location, type of structure where the colony is (tree, building, attic, barn, shed or other outbuilding), approximately how many bats are in the colony, and approximately how long the bats have been there. This information will be used to help conserve the state's endangered population of little brown bats. Send in your reports before May 30 to be included in this year's study. However, reports will be accepted throughout the year.

Q Walking home from the polls in Great Barrington this morning, I found a robin's egg shell in the midst of a cemetery. There was no tree around, no obvious place for a nest. How do you think the shell got there? I'm afraid the answer may involve a predator or something else. A few steps farther along the path, I found a soft, papery little balloon. Seed pod? If so, what? Or one of those knobs that, if I remember correctly, contain an insect larva? We used to be fascinated by hard ones on milkweed stems as kids, back when milkweed was plentiful.

— Elizabeth, Great Barrington

A An egg, blue with no markings, is often a robin, but there are other birds with similar eggs, for instance the starling that is a cavity nester and would be less likely to have an egg or nest blow away. Regardless of what kind of egg it is, I think the wind destroyed the nest and scattered the eggs, releasing the contents. It could be the result of a predator in conjunction with the wind, or even a cowbird — not a predator, but a parasite, that removed the egg from the nest.

The brown-headed cowbird, a member of the blackbird family, does not make its own nests, but as it moves about, leaves eggs for others to hatch. More likely the egg was pushed overboard by a hatchling cowbird to make room for itself. Often, it's nest mates are of a smaller species, but not always.

Brown-headed cowbirds originally followed the herds of bison (buffalo) across the Great Plains, moving east as settlers cleared forests. Staying in one place, while the bison moved about scaring up grasshoppers and other insects would not give a pair time to make a nest and rear a family, so at some point they began dropping off their eggs for other birds to raise, and some 140 species have accommodated these vagabonds, often at the cost of the lives of their own young.

As for the round brown ball-like, paper-thin object, it is not a seed pod, but a gall. In this case, I believe it is the result of wasp larva, forcing the plant tissue to grow abnormally, forming these plant tissue swellings. Galls are usually found on foliage or twigs. Deformities such as these are caused by plant growth-regulating chemicals or stimuli produced by an insect or other arthropod pest species. In this case, an oak wasp.


Birds and windows:
Birds see the reflection on the glass and think that it is a rival they need to vanquish. They will even peck a hole in a screen to get at the reflection.

There are commercial things available to help, with which I have had success. Wildlife stores often have thin plastic film with pictures on them of things like spiderwebs or pictures of predators, such as hawks, that can be put on the glass to help the bird see the glass and realize it is solid, as well as obscuring the reflection. I imagine one could also do their own with plastic film and a Sharpie. In Great Barrington, Wards Nursery and Garden Center has brightly colored magnets that look like butterflies or birds. They come in pairs, so you can easily attach them to the screen. They can be put over the holes in the screen to solve two problems — the bird attacking, and the tear in the screen — with one product. They work quite well and might be able to be installed on glass, too, although I haven't tried that.

As for people thinking they can put out food for wildlife and only attract the things they want to see or want to attract things, but then not deal with any inconvenience or damage they might cause, you do a great job of education on this issue!

— Francine

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201     


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