American white pelican in breeding plumage (photo by Pat Gaines)
Normally when I visit Magee Marsh in May the Best Bird is a warbler, but not this year.
I struck out on two Life Bird warblers — the Kirtland’s at Oak Openings and the Connecticut warbler at the Estuary Trail — and that took the wind out of my sails. However, on my last day in the northwestern Ohio I visited East Harbor State Park and found three white pelicans in Middle Harbor.
American white pelicans spend the winter in California, the Gulf states, Mexico and Central America. Those who breed in the prairie potholes and lake regions of central and western North America rarely stop at Lake Erie on migration, but these three apparently spent the night at Middle Harbor. They were preening before continuing their journey.
In early breeding plumage they have bright orange bills with a laterally flattened “horn” on top. This looks odd to us but sexy to other white pelicans.
American white pelicans migrate during the day because they need thermals for lift. By 10:00am the air had heated up and the three pelicans circled up and headed northwest.
They were my Best Bird this week — other than peregrine falcons, of course.
How many snow geese are in this picture? Imagine if it was your job to count them!
Snow goose migration got off to a slow start this spring because the lakes remained frozen in Pennsylvania. In warm winters they start to arrive at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lebanon-Lancaster County border in late February. But that was out of the question this year. The narrow north end of Chesapeake Bay was frozen in mid-February and there were 10-12 inches of ice on Middle Creek lake. The geese stayed south.
The situation changed rapidly, though. A week ago there were 100 snow geese at Middle Creek. On Thursday March 12 there were suddenly 20,000. On Friday there were 75,000 with more arriving throughout the day. The count this morning is anyone’s guess.
Actually, the number of snow geese at Middle Creek is Jim Binder’s very educated estimate. Jim has been the manager of Middle Creek WMA since 1997 and has decades of experience counting these birds.
The trick to counting is that snow geese always rest on the lake’s open water at night. Jim comes out before dawn and counts them at first light before they leave for the day. He knows the lake well and the numbers it can hold. He’s so good at counting that he can tell the number by their sound. The record is 180,000!
But Jim has to work fast. The flock wakes up and stretches its wings. Small groups leave in a leisurely fashion to feed in nearby fields but if something scares them — an airplane, a helicopter, or a bald eagle — the entire flock goes airborne at once with a roar.
When I want to see this spectacle I read Jim Binder’s snow goose count and arrive at Willow Point before dawn. Kim Steininger took this photo on a day when there were 80,000 to 100,000 snow geese at Middle Creek.
How many snow geese do I hope for? This many!
Note: Because the ice melted so late this year, snow goose migration is likely to be intense and over quickly. The geese are running out of time to get home.
The first bird on my St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands agenda is the bananaquit. For me, it’s a Life Bird so I’m excited to see one. I fear it will soon become “ho hum,” though, because it’s so common on the island.
The bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) is a small, non-migratory bird — only the size of a black and white warbler — but it moves much faster than the warbler. Can you say “hyper-active?”
Ornithologists have tentatively placed the bananaquit in the Tanager family but its family relations are often disputed. Scientists argue about where to place this bird; these two argue about where to place themselves.
They were photographed at Campo Limpo Paulista, Brazil by Leon Bojarczuk.
(photo by Leon Bojarczuk via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)