Joan and Bob Flanagan enjoy spying on their neighbors.
Through a specially installed webcam, the couple can peek in on their friends any time of the day.
“We’ve been accused of being voyeurs,” Bob said with a chuckle.
Fortunately, the family of bluebirds doesn’t seem to mind that the Flanagans stealthily watch them through a camera Bob put on top of the nesting box that transmits images back to their computer.
The retired electrical engineer and his wife have always enjoyed the hobby of bird-watching, but took a particular liking to the official New York state bird — the Eastern bluebird — because, Joan said, the species is becoming less common.
“They’re under the gun. There are house sparrows killing them and house wrens, which are about the same size and get into their boxes. They’re rotten, and they’ll kill the babies or the parents,” she said.
The more the Flanagans learned about bluebirds, the more intrigued they became, wanting to discover as much as possible about the clutches of babies.
Several years ago, they purchased a couple of bluebird houses to put in nearby trees, but Bob said they didn’t keep out predators. He found plans for Peterson nesting boxes, with a sloped front and a smaller hole, which he built for his front and backyards.
Bob also searched for a webcam similar to what he had seen used for eaglets. He gave one to Joan as a birthday present for watching bluebirds.
The nesting box mounted on a metal pole on their front lawn is where the Flanagans indulge their voyeurism. A plastic “skylight” lets in enough light for the webcam to capture the birds in their habitat, and a microphone, amplified by electronic boosters, picks up chirping and flapping of wings.
Bob knows the birds will want to roost in the box if he keeps them comfortable, so he installed a miniature electric heater attached to a metal plate that transmits warmth to the back wall.
He uses the heater during cooler weather and said it’s so small it only raises the temperature by 15 degrees above the ambient temperature. He controls the heater by a switch from his house.
Conversely, on hot summer days, the box is “air conditioned.” A garden hose supplies cool water to chill the metal plate, keeping the box hospitable. The discharge water from the hose is then used to sprinkle the flowers in the garden.
“We don’t want to waste, you know,” Joan said.
Equally as clever is the feeding station Bob devised for his feathered friends. He hollowed out a birch log to hold a small metal dish for mealworms and installed a temperature controller from an electric blanket underneath to keep the worms alive, knowing the birds wouldn’t eat them if they were dead.
During a recent visit to the Flanagan’s house, Joan demonstrated how she summons the birds to the feeder. She put mealworms in the dish, clapped and yelled, “Come on babies!”
She then dashed back inside, slamming the front door to signal to the parents food was available.
Bob and a visitor were stationed at the computer in the den, waiting to hear from Joan when she saw the parents swoop in to grab the worms to take to the babies in the nesting box. Within seconds, an image appeared on the computer screen of the parents sticking their heads in the hole and dropping the worms in the babies’ open mouths.
She did this repeatedly with similar results.
“Some people might feel I’m doing too much by giving them food and then how are they going to fend for themselves when I’m not here. I think about that, and I don’t feed them all the time,” Joan said.
Two or three families of birds take up residence every year, enabling the Flanagans to observe the process from the parents building the nest to the babies flying the coop.
Seeing bluebirds carry pine needles into the box, mouthfuls at a time, to construct a nest is a sight many of us have never seen before, but one Bob and Joan have witnessed with awe on their webcam several times.
“It’s the most beautiful thing to see the mother. She has her beak and her claws on her feet, and she spreads her wing out and starts moving around, scraping — the claws on her feet going around to actually form this beautiful circular bowl where all the pine needles are lined up in a row,” Bob said.
What the Flanagans miss in real time on their camera is recorded so they can see the whole birth cycle take place. Unfortunately, they never have actually seen the babies hatch out of the eggs, which they think has happened during the night when their webcam wasn’t on. But they’ve seen them soon after birth, their bodies pink with no feathers.
After the birds leave the nesting box over the next few weeks, Joan and Bob will clean it out and wait for another family to set up home. Other species might try to take up residence, but the Flanagans, with their spying webcam, will promptly remove the nesting materials to make space for their beloved bluebirds.
Bob has made a few Peterson-style bird houses for friends and a local golf course, but those are not outfitted with a camera or HVAC system.
He admits some people think he and Joan take their bird-watching hobby to extremes, but he doesn’t let it ruffle his feathers.
“We don’t study anything else in nature; we just enjoy bluebirds,” he said.