Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 29, 2011

Bummer of a Birth Mark

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:37 am

Among fans of the cartoonist Gary Larson, there is a tendency to quote cartoon captions like biblical scripture & verse. There is no longer any need for the visual image that accompanies each line.  All that is needed to incite a laugh is to simply say the line. For example, one that should bring an immediate snicker out of a true “Larsonite” is “School for the Gifted.”  If you don’t know what I mean then you’ll have to picture a child pulling on a door clearly labeled “push” at the entrance to a building labeled as the School for the Gifted.  Actually I’m not sure if he was pushing or pulling, but either way the instruction was the opposite and the phrase alone has a life of its own.

I bring this up so that I can quote another classic: “Bummer of a birth mark Hal.” In this one (again for the sake of any non-Larsonites out there) one deer is saying this phrase to another deer with a target shaped mark on his belly. Indeed, I have often uttered this latter caption to myself whenever I see an Osprey feasting on a large wild goldfish – a surprisingly frequent occurrence around here. I am talking about a large gold-colored goldfish, by the way. Being gold is the bummer in this scenario, because a gold goldfish in the wild stands out like a sore thumb (or a clear target) against a natural background. It is no wonder that fish-eating Ospreys often single them out for destruction.

I was again reminded of this last week as I witnessed the annual spawning run of wild goldfish into our Lake Erie marsh. About the time that carp begin their splashy breeding rituals in late May, huge influxes of wild goldfish also make their way into the same marshes. We get lots of carp, but often there are literally thousands of goldfish swimming through as a large school. I have seen one such aggregation that literally stretched for miles (no I am not exaggerating). The only reason I can take notice of these fish within these muddy waters is due to the scattering of gold individuals among the regular ones. You know, those Osprey bait fish.

Perhaps I should explain how I know that these fish are not simply gold carp. Wild goldfish are introduced fish in Lake Erie and the Detroit River – a trait they share with Carp.  Although carp and goldfish are related, they are completely different fish descended from different stock. One way to tell them apart is to look for the presence or absence of barbels, or whiskers, about the mouth.  Carp have barbels and goldfish do not. Goldfish have a large hump behind the head and carp tend to have a sloping head to back transition. Color, oddly enough, is not a solid indicator of species but it can be a pretty good one.

There are gold carp (Koi are domestic carp) and there are greenish brown goldfish. Both fish have long been domesticated, so they can express their ornamental roots in their wild populations. Nearly all wild carp and most wild goldfish are greenish brown. A significant number of wild goldfish, however, carry on their gold or variegated gene pools.

But, back to the point of this essay.  Please look at the beginning photo and try to count the goldfish in that marsh view. I counted about 50 gold fish in that picture alone, although overall there were a hundred or so in the marsh at the time. The actual count of Goldfish – the species – was more like 500. Unseen in the spaces between the golden fish were the darker wild fish which outnumbered their ill-marked brethren by 10 to 1. Take a look at the photo below (and the larger version here) and you’ll see what I mean. In this shot there is one gold goldfish, one variegated goldfish, and at least 11 subtly colored goldfish mixed in the fray.

Now, I ask you. If you are a fish-eating bird, which individuals would you see from above?  In this school alone there are a definitely a few that are marked as “gifted.” You’d think these individuals would be eliminated over time, but I guess they have the advantage of numbers (or good schooling).

May 25, 2011

Wrong Egg, Wrong Place, Wrong Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:20 pm

When I got the call from the Lake Erie Metropark marina it was on a familiar topic. An egg had been found aboard one of the boats and the owner wanted to know what to do about it. Since sitting on it wasn’t an option, the response was to simply remove it. The offending layer was probably out of sorts anyway and looking to dump a few extra eggs. In any case, it wouldn’t have undergone incubation yet and was therefore prime for the frying pan. Once the boat was out of the slip, the situation would be ended.

In all previous cases the lone egg turned out to be a Mallard Duck egg dumped by a misguided female.  This sort of thing happens quite a bit. This time was different, however.  First of all, the egg was laid on the back portion of the boat at a place where the deck sloped toward the water. The only thing that kept it from falling into the drink was an electrical cord that lay across its path. Nestled in the uncertain embrace of the cord, the lone egg was held in precarious balance. So, it was an especially dim-witted duck, I thought.  Then an additional mysterious fact popped up via the phone conversation. A pair of nervous Black-crowned Night Herons was hovering around the boat containing the egg.  They refused to leave the vicinity and were acting very parenty.

Now, that was an unusual thing. I could not imagine a Night Heron laying a naked egg on the deck of a boat or acting in such a suspicious manner in mid-day. They are not called Night herons for nothing! I really wanted to check this situation out. The first thing was to check out the egg.

I had hoped that the staff would have kept the egg in position, but they opted to remove it before I arrived.  In retrospect this was probably a good idea. If it had slipped from its uncertain position and into the green waters, I would never have had the opportunity to take a look at it. There, nestled in a cradle of paper toweling within a coffee cup, the mystery egg awaited my inspection.

At first glance I thought it to be a Mallard egg – albeit a small one. “No,” I was assured, “it matches the Night Heron eggs on the internet.” At the moment I recalled that Night Heron eggs were blue, not beige like this one, but momentarily backed off of my knee-jerk assessment. The internet never lies, right?  I asked to be shown where the egg was found and was directed to the boat, the sloping deck, and the sad little electrical cord that once sought to save the egg (and perhaps had hopes to raise it as its own).

There on the adjacent dock sat the apprehensive looking Night Heron. The ruby red eye and long dangling head feather made for an impressive looking specimen. “The other one just flew away,” I was told. Sure enough, the other one returned as if to land on the boat but swerved away at the last minute upon spotting me.  The first bird remained in its exposed dock position and eventually joined the other on the low branch of a nearby willow tree. By golly these two were acting very parenty indeed.

Black-crowned Night Herons are typically creatures of the dusk and night. These small herons typically roost by day and can be seen flying to their evening fishing grounds like giant bats in the twilight. Their primitive squawking calls heighten their mysterious demeanor. They nest in rookeries, like their larger cousins the Great Blue Herons, in large twiggy nests.  All of this defies the situation before me. The birds were acting unusual in two regards.

I left thinking that maybe I was wrong and that the egg was a miscolored heron egg (an off color egg laid in an off color place by parents too ashamed to admit it yet unwilling to abandon it entirely).  The only thing to do was conduct some serious consideration of the egg. This I did.

First of all, I compared it to the Black-crowned Night heron eggs in our collection. They were slightly smaller and blue. This one, as mentioned, was beige. Unfortunately the shade of beige tricked the eye into looking greenish bluish beige when placed next to the heron eggs, so the contrast was not radical. I then compared it to another mallard egg in the collection. That one was the same shade of confusing beige but was slightly larger than our orphan egg. Finally I did the math and eliminated all doubt.  While the largest Night heron egg could be expected to be around 50 mm in length, this one was 55 mm long and wider by 10 mm than any recorded Heron egg. In short – it was a Mallard egg. The internet can lie if you just look at pictures, you see. The numbers do not lie (very much).

In this case we apparently had a pair of zealous birds who had grown used to fishing at the dock. They didn’t want to leave the spot now occupied by the boat in question. They were not acting parenty, as we thought, they were acting hungrily.  There is even the possibility that the herons were looking to eat the contents of the egg and that we humans were in their way. But the fact is that they didn’t lay it. It was the human factor that brought the wrong egg together with the wrong bird.   From heron in I shall be more careful in such situations.

May 22, 2011

Midnight at the Oasis

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:56 pm

The world at the end of my Dollar Lake dock is shrouded in mystery after the sun sets. There are sounds, splashes, ripples, and peeps originating above the surface and movements in the inky darkness beneath it. By day it is a definable world but by night it is altered.  I ventured to the end of my dock late one night in order to peer into that dark world.  The Spring Peepers were in full calling mode. I wanted to see if I could locate one and see it in the act. Perhaps my resident muskrat might glide by on a feeding foray or I may see some pike coming up into the shallows while on the hunt.

I was surrounded by the ventriloquistic calls of the peepers as I reached dock’s end.  It was a dark still night and all the sounds were issued without competition from the wind. All were so close yet so non-directional. I could tell that most of the peeps were coming from the cat-tail patch south of the dock, so I prepared to walk back along the shore. First, I casually swung the beam of my flashlight across the water in the hopes of catching an eye gleam or a ripple before turning around and letting the beam descend into the water.

Once illuminated, I could see that every submerged stem, stick, or dock post was inhabited by a flock of snails. I don’t know what a bunch of snails is properly called (a shell, a twist, a slime?) but in this case “flock” is an appropriate designation. These particular snails are called Banded Mystery Snails. They are medium sized mollusks, about 2 inches long, with characteristic brown stripes that follow the axis of their whorls. To say they are common here is an understatement, for a multitude of their empty shells litter the shoreline. Even so, it is hard to find a live snail during the day.  My flashlight revealed why this was so – Banded Mystery Snails come out to play at night.

These snails were everywhere. In fact, they were even crawling on top of each other.  Grazers by nature, each snail protruded a proboscis equipped with a set of rasping teeth (see detail photo above) and they were feeding upon the meadows of algae. Eye stalks were much in evidence as were the large pad-like feet upon which these creatures crawled about. Barely visible on the upper side of these extended feet were the oval operculums which act as front doors when the snails withdraw into their shells.

The shell of each snail was fringed with a wig of algae filaments. Out of the water this fringe would have looked like a sodden mat, but when suspended in water it stood out like electric hair and produced a graceful effect.

You’ll note that there appears to be a host of cream-colored filaments floating in the adjacent water in the above photo. These are artifacts of the slow speed of the digital image.  Each represents the path taken by a host of micro-crustaceans (mostly Daphnia – aka Water Fleas) swimming in the water column around the snails. Since the camera shutter needs to stay open for a long time in such dim light the creatures were recorded as streaking tracks of life. Needless to say, the slower snails hardly moved at all during the exposures.

I finally pulled myself away from the snail scenery – one can only watch snails for so long – and walked to the shore in order to find the peepers. My hunt was futile. The beam of the flashlight failed to produce the sight of any calling frogs. Even though they appeared to be “right there” there was no pinpointing them either visually or audibly, so I opted for a different tactic. Aligning my camera along the flashlight beam, I slowing panned through the cat-tails in the hopes that a later examination might reveal a frog or two. The effect was interesting, but unproductive. True, I did get a good mood-setting backdrop for a Spring Peeper soundtrack but no sight of the swelling throats or shiny eyes making those sounds. There was a surprise, however.

Take a look at, and a listen to, this video and you’ll see what I mean. You probably won’t notice it the first time through, so you’ll have to view it a few times.  Exactly half way into the shoot (13 seconds in) you’ll notice a fleeting glimpse of the striped figure of a Northern Watersnake slinking through the stems. It appears briefly in the beam at the right side of the frame and moves off as the view continues left. I never saw this serpent as I was shooting. It was only later that I realized that I was not alone at the time of filming. It appears that I was not the only one looking for Peepers out there in my little snail filled oasis.

May 19, 2011

McBirding at Tawas

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:22 pm

Birdwatching is not a “fast food” sport. The menu is a long one, for sure, but the offerings are not always served hot and most of the items are not even available most of the time (I’m talking about a bird list, by the way). There are some places where you can go and find more offerings than usual, however. These special spots offer what is the closest thing to a McBirding experience – where the menu is flush with current offerings and the service is fast. One of these special spring Mcbirding spots is at Tawas Point, MI.

I was honored with an invitation to the “Point” last weekend. The Michigan Audubon Society invited me to be a speaker at their annual Tawas Point Birding Festival.  This three day event gathered some 300 or so birders from across the state for an orgy of bird watching trips, speaker sessions, and food. My role was to conduct two sessions on beginning hawkwatching (which I called “Hawkwatching for Dummies”). You could say that my simple approach to this subject was as a Mcbirder. I do not work hard as a birder – never have – so I presented my lazy man’s way to watch hawks.  My approach was less than technical. Fortunately the society members did not throw me out after I referred to the white rump patch on the Northern Harrier as “plumber’s butt” and explained the finer points of projectile vomiting by Turkey Vultures.

Of course, I was not THE main speaker on the docket. It just so happened that field guide authors Donald & Lillian Stokes where there to promote their latest field guide to Birds of North America. So, I suppose a few folks came to the conference to hear them as well.  (I also made sure to get my hand-signed copy of their book while I was there). These seasoned birders were delighted by their first day of birding at the point. Lillian’s comment at the signing banquet pretty well summed it up by saying “Oh My God – the trees were literally dripping with birds!”  Unfortunately rain and high winds swept into the area on the second day and the pair decided to fly the coop and head to Chicago for their next event.

One thing that fascinated me about the weekend was how the community welcomed the birders in such a big way. Many of the local businesses posted “welcome birders” signs and offered special deals etc.   The locals frequently referred to “those bird people” but did so in a positive way – appreciating the business during an otherwise slow time of year. The birders were not hard to spot around town. My wife (who is not a birder) summed up her view of the situation by noting their characteristic plumage which consisted of safari vests and khaki pant legs tucked into boot tops. I would add the presence of binoculars and/or a camera to that list of traits.

I don’t tuck and I don’t own a pocketed vest, but I will admit to being one of those khaki wearing camera toting bird watchers on that weekend. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many opportunities to actually “bird” due to my time constraints and the crappy weather. I did sneak in a very productive hour while waiting for my first presentation. The place served up one of those rare menu selections, as a matter of fact.

There is a small spit of land striking out into the waters of Lake Huron behind the conference center. I took a short stroll on this old pier and was greeted with a flyover by a fish-totting bald eagle, the passage of a flock of black terns, a gaggle of common mergansers, and a solitary Spotted Sandpiper on the beach (see below).

The sandpiper is a common Michigan species which I shall have to return to at some time in the future. They are a female dominated species which tell their males what to do and where to do it. But, on this short foray my prize sighting was a Lapland Longspur.  Because I am a lazy birder, I had never seen one before – this due to the fact I never actually went searching for them.

The Longspurs are residents of the High Arctic which winter in the lower 48. They can be quite common down here, but they seek out wide open spaces that mirror their high northern tastes. Along with flocks of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks, they can be found out on bitter wind-swept ice fields from December through March. Needless to say, I tend to avoid bitter wind swept ice fields during the winter. Imagine my surprise, then, at coming upon a Longspur at Tawas in the month of May after only walking 100 feet from my car.

I will share this trophy picture with you as proof of my story. This bird was a male who happened to be in his best breeding finery (something you will not see in mid-winter).  He scurried among the rocks for a few minutes before launching back into the migratory stream. There is no other sparrow-like bird that matches the white-bordered black face and rich rufous head pattern found on this species. The long back toe-nails (apparent on this view) are the “Longspurs” in question.

In case you are wondering, this handsome little bird is actually found in Lapland as well as on the North American Tundra. They are found around the entire northern half of the globe. Now I can definitely say that at least one graced the birding festival as well. No doubt it felt comfortable amongst all that khaki.  As a matter of fact, so did I!

May 16, 2011

Why Killdeer Have Orange Butts

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:05 pm

When sitting in the green room between acts, Killdeer display a somber tawny brown back. The long wing tips cover the red-brown color of the rump when the bird is at rest.  Although legendary for their acting prowess, they are relatively plain looking (and acting) by choice. As residents of open ground this color combination serves well as camouflage on exposed gravelly surfaces. When their nest is threatened, the birds instantly fan out their tails and launch into their famous “broken wing” act in order to lure away potential robbers.  Sir Lawrence Olivier could do no better in this regard.

One feature that attains prominence during the defensive act are the black and white neck bands (see above). The birds crane their necks to expose the broad white patch located between the upper and lower dark neck bands. Take a good look at one of these famous Killdeer performances, however, and you’ll see how they make the most out of their bright orange-red butts (see beginning photo). This is the feature put on prominent display whenever one of these birds is compelled to defend a nest location.  Even though the overall theme of the act is to call attention to the alleged broken flapper, the rump colors are meant to call attention to this fact. They act as playbills announcing “horribly broken wing now showing – come and get an easy meal.”

A bird in full performance will flop from side to side with its wing upturned at an awkward angle. It will drop to the ground as if lame and flash that orange butt by  fanning the tail from side to side.  When approached, they manage to recover from this mortal injury just long enough to run a few dozen yards further away from the nest – at which point they become re-afflicted.  They will keep this up until luring the danger well out of the vicinity of the eggs. For a fox or coyote, the act is very convincing.

I came upon the Killdeer pictured here in a marina parking lot. But, instead of leading me away from the nest, the bird’s performance actually led me to it (am I smarter than a fox? Well, maybe). One can judge the proximity of the eggs by watching the intensity of the act. Like a game of “hot & cold” the well-intentioned display often serves as a means of nest betrayal. When I took the video, shown here, I was nearly on top of the nest and the bird was going ballistic. I never suspected the location until the bird “doth protested too much.”

The actual nest – a shallow scrape really – was located under a boat trailer and contained four neatly speckled eggs (see here). Although there are occasionally five eggs in such a nest, four is the typical number. The narrow ends always face inward in a tight shamrock pattern.

This bird returned to incubate the clutch only after I walked well away from the site. Both the male and female birds participate in both incubation and nest defense, so I am not sure whether the individual pictured here was a he or a she.  With a dedication that would drive most birds insane, Killdeer will keep up this routine for 24-28 days until the fluffy chicks finally hatch out (and work on their own method acting skills). Unlike human actors, each and every acting performance is as good as that performed on opening day. Bravo, your Shakespearean orange rumpus does you proud my ‘deer.

May 12, 2011

Hi Hi Birdie

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:30 pm

If you are reading this blog and it is still light out, then I implore ye to stop and get thee to the wood.  In short, the warblers are moving through and theirs is not a show to be missed. You can come back and read this later. If thee is in a darkened lair and the sun has already set beyond yonder crested hill, then make plans to get thee into the wood upon the ‘morrow.

If ye are a Quaker, please forgive me for speaking in such simple tongue, but I do often get into Quaker mode around this time of year. I guess it’s because the abundance of bird life gets me to thinking of John James Audubon -the dean of American birders.  The French speaking Audubon first learned his English from the Quakers of Pennsylvania and he spoke and wrote in their manner throughout the rest of his storied life. And, if there is any time to wax poetic about birds in Audubonesque style, it is noweth.

Early to mid-May is the time when a majority of the warblers pass through our neck of the wood (and the entire stretch of northern wood). There are dozens of species of these so-called “butterfly birds” and their migration is nothing short of a feathered Tsunami (albeit a gentle one). All of them are in full color as well and each species displays a clear set of field marks. Don’t expect the same success when they pass back through in the fall, however. Many of the bird guides have a section dedicated to “Confusing Fall Warblers” and that about sums up the art of autumn warbling. No, now is the time to strike the warbling iron when their color palette is hot.

Nearly all of these tiny migrants are working their way back from the tropics and will eventually end up in the northern forests of Northern Michigan and into Canada.  Their time here is short and their placement usually high. You’ll find them probing through the newly erupted tree leaf & flower buds seeking insects – they need these high protein snacks to keep up their energy reserves. You, therefore, will need to be prepared to look up for long periods of time. Your neck will crackle with pain, but ye needeth some pain in life for it too be considered good (although, you can learn some of the songs and lessen to need to look up for identification).

On a given day you’ll have the opportunity to see 10-20 species, which means that the neck pain thing will be easy to ignore.  I’ve been to the wood recently and had the opportunity to see a bunch of these little dynamos. I’ve only a few to show you, but that is because “seeing” warblers is not necessarily equivalent to “getting good pictures of them.” That is my excuse anyway.

One of the nicer finds was a small group of Palm Warblers (see above and beginning photo). These chestnut-capped birds, in spite of their name, don’t necessarily spend an inordinate amount of time around palm trees. They winter along the gulf coast and the Caribbean, to be sure, but they actually nest further north than most warblers. Their breeding range extends well up into the high taiga forests and boggy areas near the Arctic Circle. They are ground nesters and they also spend quite a bit of time on the ground foraging as well. Their nervous habit of tail wagging will give them away from a distance (you could say that it is not difficult to read a Palm Warbler!).

I’ve introduced the Yellow-rumped Warbler to you many times in the past (see below). This species tends to over-winter here as drab-colored berry eaters. Spring brings about a magical transformation of these butter-butts. Their contrasting yellow highlights and blue-gray features are now a sight to behold. Needless to say, their name is very diagnostic (although I have just needlessly said it). Most the birds seen now are actual migrants passing through from the southern U.S. and Mexico. This season, in particular, happens to be a benchmark year for these birds and they are literally everywhere.

Yellow Warblers are also common in these parts – both as migrants and summer residents (see below). They are one of the few warblers that nest in the willow thickets of S.E. Michigan. They are not permanent residents, however. They spend most of their year in the tropics of Central America and Columbia. Like most warblers, Yellows are actually tropical birds that happen to pay us a visit each year. Better thought of as flying dandelions, these birds are unmistakable in color and distinctive in call. Their whispy “Sweet sweet sweet oh so Sweet” call is a regular part of our summer landscape.

Last, but not least, is the secretive Black & White Warbler (see below). Well named, their bold pattern consists of alternating stripes of black on white (or is it white on black?). These warblers seek their insect food amongst the nooks and crannies offered by tree and vine bark. They sneak about in close proximity to the trunk in the manner of a nuthatch or a brown creeper. Another deep tropical bird from southern Mexico through to Venezuela, they look very much at home in the thick viney tangles of southern Michigan.

I will confess to a bit of confusion about this last bird. Both of the pictures I took of the Black & White Warbler were in color but the bird turned out to be black & white in both! I converted one of the shots (see below) into a straight black & white picture and, for some reason, the bird looks more comfortable in it’s surroundings. I invite you to taketh your color pictures of these birds and see if yours too come out in strict Quaker black & white.

May 9, 2011

Black Flies Are Good (Tasting)

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:01 pm

The spillway at Crosswinds Marsh was a hub of activity the other day. The running waters – tumbling over the rocky bottom – were bubbling with life. That life came in two forms. Millions of Black Flies were hatching from the moving water and dozens of birds were there to eat them.  It was a pretty simple bird-eat-bug scenario and one in which the Black Flies played a positive role for a change.

It might seem odd to mention Black Flies as a good thing. For residents of Northern Michigan, these blood-thirsty little demons are not a cause for celebration. The spring hatch means clouds of misery as these tiny flies seek out all patches of unprotected skin in numbers akin to the biblical Egyptian plagues. No, they are a reason to avoid Northern Michigan at certain times of the year. All of this ignores the simple fact that Black flies are found in these places because they can only breed in unpolluted streams and waterways. In other words, they are indicators of good water quality.   Should the Pure Michigan campaign get a hold of this idea they might want to do an ad touting Black Flies as symbols of the pure crystalline waters of our state. “Get bitten by the spirit of the north – come to Michigan.” Well, maybe this wouldn’t go over so well but nothing ventured nothing gained, right?

Fortunately (or is it unfortunately?) Black Flies are not a regular feature of southern Michigan life. It was, therefore, both a surprise and a delight to see them at Crosswinds in such huge numbers. The larvae not only require clean water but they require moving water as well. Attached to the bottom rocks, the bowling pin shaped larvae filter food out of the current. The only moving water at this marsh complex is at the spillway where there is a consistent flow that drains off into a canal.

After a brief pupation, the insects emerge from the water as winged adults (see above). Due to their dark color they are easily identified as Black Flies, but their hump-backed appearance is equally diagnostic. Upon emergence, the adults participate in a mass orgy where males and females pile up in shameless mounds of sexuality. Clumps of flies drift along on the moving water surface. Individuals scampered about like fleas and clambered onto the streamside vegetation and spillway walls (see below).  Their nervous energy certainly charged the air on the day I came upon them and I was not the only one affected.

Dozens of green and white Tree Swallows were feeding on the masses of living chow. There were a few Barn Swallows in the mix, but most were of the Tree persuasion. The birds were swirling about like wind-whipped leaves over the insect studded waters. Their motions were almost mesmerizing – maybe even Zen-like (whatever that means). Watch this little video short here and see what I mean. They were plucking the floating insects off the surface without leaving as much as a ripple in their path.

After a bout of feeding, the birds would perch on a nearby fence to preen and meditate. Their iridescent blue-green backs glittered in the mid-day sun. It was, I’m sure, a banner day to be a swallow. When a bird called a swallow is given the opportunity to do nothing but swallow that is swell thing.

A half dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers also joined in the Black Fly feast. As opposed to the swirling flight tactics of the swallows, the warblers chose to hunt and peck for their daily bread. These brightly colored little birds were driven to near mental collapse by the sheer mass of moving life about them.  I videoed one fellow attempting to make sense of the situation (see here and photo below). It would have made human sense to just sit in one place and peck away as the insect horde moved toward you, but to a bird brain it made better sense to jump about and select at random. I watched them literally gorge themselves on the Black Flies and have little doubt that they’ll be pooping out wings and legs for quite some time.

Considering that I was in the midst of a million Black Flies, I came away from the situation relatively unscathed. I did find a nasty little bite on my hand afterward, but only one. I guess being in the center of the target was the safest place to be – under the diligent protection of the swallows and warblers.

May 5, 2011

Fish Eagles on a Sparrow Nest

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

There is life on the rugged looking Osprey nest at Estral Beach once again. Although this pair actually built the nest last year, they were unable to complete their breeding cycle. A monster late spring windstorm might have had something to do with it – disturbing the nest and eggs and forcing the pair to write the 2010 breeding season off. Fortunately, they are back this season and now appear to be making another go of it.

Arriving the week before Easter, or thereabouts, the pair wasted no time in starting new construction on the old homestead. I tried to check in with them as much as possible throughout the process, but my visits were brief. Weeks of rainy weather, steel gray skies, and high winds made osprey watching difficult to say the least. Each and every time, however, I was able to witness one of the birds either in the act of delivering or positioning a new nest stick.

On Easter morning, during one of the few recent rainless periods, my son and I watched as the birds “hunted” for nest material. There is a woodlot about a half mile away, and they would fly straight to this location to seek their wooden prey.  Once on site, they would dive down on a selected branch and grasp it with their talons. By the force of momentum and sheer body weight (the birds weight about 4 pounds soaking wet), the dead wood would snap off under pressure and the liberated stick would be carried back to the nest. Each was then carefully placed into proper position. Much of this work appeared to be done by the female, but it was difficult to tell them apart.

Female ospreys tend to be larger (15%-20%) and slightly darker than the males, but this is a relative statement. The gals tend to have a bib of dark speckling across the upper breast as well, but, then again this is not an absolute thing. Both birds in this pair have neck bibs, but one has a distinctly darker band. It is reasonable to peg this darker bird as the female. I am too much the gentleman to tell her that she looks fatter than the male, so this will have to do for the present.

In between nest construction, the birds paused to feast on freshly caught fish. This is their forte after all – they are superbly adapted to the task with extremely long talons, rough foot pads, and wickedly long bill hooks. It takes but a short time for them to render a whole fish into a memory as they rip off bite sized chunks (see here). In the manner of parrot, ospreys hold and deftly manipulate their food using one foot at a time. In the shot below, you can see that the bird just plucked the last chunk out of his raised left foot .

Probably no other bird of prey, save for owls, have such large forward facing eyes (see here). These big bright beautiful orbs are yet another key to their fishing prowess. They are able to pin point their targets with the aide of precise binocular vision. It might not be too forward to suggest that they could be better called Opt-preys in honor of their optical abilities (the “Os” in Osprey, by the way, refers to “bone” – they are bone crushers). Yes, I know that is a stupid suggestion but I thought I’d just throw that one out there.

The piscatorial delights of Sandy Creek and Lake Erie are only a short distance away from this couple’s nest location which is why they built the thing where they did. Just like human real estate, nesting is all about location, location, location. When those kids and their hungry mouths arrive, the super market needs to be close by.

The female (the “bigger” one) started incubating late last week. The pair has settled down to a regular routine as they now wait out the 32-40 day process. On one of the recent warm days (the only warm day last week) I even caught a bird napping (see below) in the late afternoon sunlight. I would not call this cat-napping because, well, it is a bird and that particular word might offend feathered types. Let’s just call it a Sushi sleep.

I will keep you updated on the future events as they unfold but there is one more thing worth mentioning in this case. Because the nest structure is so large, there are actually several bird pairs producing young in that tangle of sticks. A set of House Sparrows have taken up residence in the lower apartment space and a Starling couple were seriously looking into the east room. The tenants will not need to fear their fish-eating landlords. At any rate, there are going to be a lot of hungry little mouths chirping in that pile of sticks within a few weeks.

May 1, 2011

Duck? Duck? Goose!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:57 pm

In the world of birding, there is always an informal competition to be the “first” to report an unusual bird. It really means nothing, but still there is that small (very small) satisfaction gained from being a re-discoverer of something. I do not consider myself a birder, nor am I a lister, nor do I keep tabs on the rare bird alert or the internet/e-mail/blackberry/twitter bird announcements. I have been known to saunter to a reported rare bird location as long as it is a) close, b) convenient, c) the weather is good, and d) I do not have to wash my hair.  Call me lazy or call me practical (or call me on the telephone and I might pick up).

You can also call me hypocritical.  This month I actually scored a “first” and now have the audacity of trumpeting it here. Actually, the real credit goes to Chad (whose last name I will withhold) who reported the bird to me. I must note, however, that I was the first to properly identify the bird in question. I believe that counts for something doesn’t it? Chad was close, however, and if he really wants to claim the big money and trophy that comes from such a thing then he is more than welcome to it. He reported seeing a Snow Goose in amongst a flock of Canada Geese down by the Lake Erie shore.

I sauntered down to the lakeshore in order to see this bird since the situation satisfied all my rare bird requirements. Elsewhere on the planet Snow Geese are one of the most abundant fowl known to modern man, but again –it’s all about location. They are rare enough in our neck of the woods to be worthy of a glance (I blogged about one two years ago as a matter of fact).  Upon reaching the location, I did not have to search very long before spotting it. The white bird stood out like a sore thumb.

For a moment my heart sank because I initially believed it to be nothing more than a domestic duck. It was a very small bird. Next to the surrounding Canada Geese it looked even smaller. Was this a duck? I peered through the high magnification of my camera viewer to see it. Even framed in 80X it still looked like a duck. The bird was resting on the ground with its head tucked over its back. Finally, it raised a very un-ducklike head and displayed a very goosey triangular bill. By golly it was a goose after all, but not your standard Snow Goose. It was a diminutive relative of the Snow Goose called a Ross’s Goose.

I verbally reported the creature to certain songbirds and the sighting hit the web.  There were birders looking for it within hours and, oddly enough, I felt kinda sorta almost proud. Don’t ask me why.

Ross’s Geese, like Snow Geese, are white birds with black primary wing feathers. They are easily separated from the latter species by their small size, rounder head, shorter neck, and squat pinkish bill lacking the black “sneer” patch (a mark that looks more like poorly applied black lipstick). Like the Snows, they nest in the high Arctic and winter in the western U.S.  Ross’s are far less common than Snow Geese as well, but are still extremely abundant.

My little Ross’s  has continued to stick with his adopted gang of Canadians. Like a Chihuahua among Great Danes he has been grazing, resting, and swimming with them for the past few days.  It is an added bonus that this particular little lost goose was a pure blood as well – a thing that makes it a little more “specialer.”  There apparently are some hybrid Ross’s/Snow Geese out there that exhibit  a confusing combination of traits. These birds don’t count for either species on the birder lists or are, at least, assigned an asterisk on that list.

But, in the long run, I realize that it is unfair for me or any other contemporary to claim this bird. This species was named in honor of the Hudson’s Bay Factor Bernard Ross (1824-1874).  Ross, apart from sporting the largest mutton-chop sideburns in all the Northwest Territories, was an amateur naturalist of note. The goose that ended up with his name was known to fur traders since the late 1700’s. They called them “Horned Waveys” for some reason (where that name came from can only be chalked up to long lonely liquor-filled nights).  Ross himself never described the bird officially, but it was dubbed Chen rossii by naturalist John Cassin in 1861. So, you see, this bird has belonged to Mr. Ross for 150 years.

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