Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Jun 25 2014

Til Death Do Us Part

One of a pair of snow geese at Martin's Creek PP&L, June 2014 (photo by Jon Mularczyk)

In this month of wedding vows …

Jon Mularczyk confirmed that there are still four snow geese at the Martin’s Creek PP&L lands in Northampton County.  This species is quite unusual in Pennsylvania in June.

All the other five million snow geese are nesting at their arctic breeding grounds right now and their eggs are about to hatch.  The four geese near Bangor, PA should have left months ago.

Why are they still here?  Because they mate for life.

When snow geese are two years old they choose a mate … forever.  Their pair bond is so strong and so permanent that they will never abandon each other as long as they live.  The bird pictured above is able-bodied and could fly to the arctic but his mate, below, has a broken wing.  He won’t leave without her.
Snow goose with broken wing at Martin's Creek PP&L, June 2014 (photo by Jon Mularczyk)

The other two geese are probably their one-year old “kids.”  Young snow geese stay with their parents during their first round-trip migration so if Mom and Dad get stuck in Pennsylvania the kids stay, too.  Family ties are important.

Humans could learn a lot from snow geese.

Til death do us part.

 

(photos by Jon Mularczyk, Broad-Winged Photography)

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Jun 18 2014

Magical

Upland sandpiper (photo by Dan Arndt)

Strip mining consumes nearly 3,000 acres of Pennsylvania every year but there’s a ray of hope when the mines are reclaimed.  The “strips” become grasslands that could attract this bird.

Though they are “shorebirds” upland sandpipers don’t live at the shore.  They’re the quintessential grassland bird and an indicator of healthy tallgrass prairie.  Eight months of the year they live on the pampas (grasslands) of Argentina but in early spring they fly 6,000 to 8,000 miles, sometimes in as little as a week, to nest in the grasslands of North America.  Present from April to August, they stay here only four months.

In this century it’s a privilege to see one.  In the late 1800′s the upland plover, as it was called at the time, was market-hunted to fill the dining niche vacated by the suddenly scarce passenger pigeon.  Trainloads of dead “plovers” were shipped East while settlers drained the prairie and converted it to farmland.  Nowadays habitat loss and pesticides continue to threaten the bird’s existence.  Bartramia longicauda is listed as endangered in Pennsylvania.

Upland sandpipers are magical birds.  Your first hint of their presence may be a long mellow courtship whistle, given in flight or upon alighting (click here to hear), or their short whistle: “Ba-tui-tui.

They are graceful in almost everything they do.  In flight they use a distinctive rapid fluttering style reserved for the breeding grounds. Scan the fenceposts and you’ll find one perched where he landed with wings held aloft in a V, then slowly lowered.  It’s worth waiting to see one do this.  With its 20 inch wingspan, you can’t help but notice the bird.
Upland sandpiper (photo by Dan Arndt)

Upland sandpipers are very picky about grass.  They require upland, ungrazed grassland with three kinds of habitat: perches for courtship, tall vegetation with overhanging cover for the nest, low vegetation for their young to forage in.  They are also picky about grass species, preferring native grasses to invasives.  This means there are few places to find them in Pennsylvania.

The opportunity to see an upland sandpiper is so tempting, though, that birders will drive long distances to find them.  When I read last week that they were seen in Clarion County I drove an hour and a half last Sunday to meet up with Carole Winslow, Clarion County’s bird compiler.   We found a birder from New Jersey who had driven 5 hours to find “uppies.” He was lured by the magic, too.

Carole and I were very lucky. We saw four upland sandpipers in a large field at Mt. Airy and as we drove away were startled to see one perched on a fencepost close to the road.   Oh my!  We stopped in our tracks.  He took our breath away.

 

(Photos by Dan Arndt, Creative Commons license.  Dan lives in Calgary and writes for two blogs: Birds Calgary and Bird Canada. His most recent blog celebrated Rachel Carson’s birthday (a native of the Pittsburgh area) with a photo of a peregrine. Woo hoo!)

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Apr 29 2014

Build And Sink

Franklin's gull (photo by Daniel Arndt)

As unusual as the gull that nests in trees, this one builds a floating nest.

Here in North America, Franklin’s gulls are prairie birds.  They spend the winter on the Pacific coast of South America, then migrate in Spring to the prairie marshes of Canada, Montana and the Dakotas where they look for shallow lakes to nest colonially.  Every year they assess the water depth and vegetation density when they arrive.  Droughts or floods force them to choose different marshes than they used the year before.

Like other marsh birds, Franklin’s gulls have learned that land-based nests are in danger of predation so they build floating nests out of bulrushes, cattails or phragmites.  To keep the nests from drifting they anchor them to underwater reeds.

Unfortunately the submerged material decays and the nest sinks so the pair and their oldest chicks add more nest material every day to raise the surface.

If you have to work this hard to keep your nest from disappearing you eventually find time-saving shortcuts.  Picking new bulrushes takes a long time, seven times longer than stealing your neighbor’s nesting material (someone actually timed this).  Naturally a lot of stealing occurs.

Build and sink, build and sink, the floating nest requires daily upkeep and annoys the neighbors.

 

(photo by Dan Arndt who writes for two blogs in Canada:  Bird Canada and Birds Calgary. Click on either blog link to see more of his work.  You’ll also see that they still have snow in Calgary right now. Yow!)

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Apr 11 2014

Ruddy Bubbles

Ruddy ducks are migrating through Pennsylvania right now but we’re not going to see the most interesting part of their lives because they reserve it for their breeding grounds in the prairie potholes of North America.

Unlike most ducks, ruddies don’t court while they’re away from home nor do they molt into breeding plumage before they begin migration.  Instead they save their efforts for the big splash on the breeding grounds.  At that point the males will be a deep ruddy color and their bills will be sky blue.  They show off this beauty in an exaggerated bubble display.

Cornell’s Birds of North America describes the display like this (paraphrased):  “The male holds his head, tail and two rows of head feathers (“horns”) erect.  His inflates his neck and begins beating his bill slowly at first against his neck, forcing air out of the feathers.  This causes bubbles to appear in the water.  His beating intensifies toward the end of the display with a concomitant movement of his tail over his back and his head slightly forward over the water.  And then he utters a low belching sound.”

Who knew that male ruddy ducks bubble and burp?  I’m going to have to go West to see it.

(video from YouTube)

http://slatermuseum.blogspot.com/2010/11/ruddy-ducks-are-odd-ducks.html

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Apr 10 2014

Speaking Of Red-Rimmed Eyes…

Published by under Water and Shore

Horned grebe (photo by Shawn Collins)

I mentioned last month that ring-billed gulls in breeding plumage have red rimmed eyesHorned grebes go a step further.  Their eyes are not only red-rimmed but the eyes themselves are red with a red line from eye to bill. They look like they’ve been on a binge.

Shawn Collins photographed this horned grebe in March when it was partway into breeding plumage.

When they’re finished molting they’re even more colorful but it’s harder to see their eyes.

Three horned grebes in breeding plumage (photo by Shawn Collins)

Last Sunday there were lots of horned grebes at Moraine State Park and they continue this week on regional lakes and rivers, migrating to their breeding grounds in Canada.

Look at their heads.  Yes, they have “horns.”

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

p.s. Horned grebes (Podiceps auritus) also breed in Europe and Asia where their English name is “Slavonian grebe.”

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Apr 07 2014

The Gull That Nests in Trees

Bonaparte's gull on nest, Churchill (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, Pawtuxent Wildlife Research Center, USGS)

Gulls always nest on the ground, right?

Wrong!  There’s one gull species in North America, migrating through western Pennsylvania this week, that nests in trees.

Bonaparte’s gulls seem to lead double lives.  In the winter they’re just like any other gull on the coast, loafing near humans on the beach and skimming the ocean to catch small fish.  Their beautiful moth-like flight sets them apart but otherwise they’re unremarkable.  In winter they look like this:

Bonaparte's gulls loafin on the beach in Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

In the spring they molt into sharp black, gray and white breeding plumage.

Bonaparte's gull in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)

 

But even before their heads turn black they migrate north, passing through Pittsburgh along the Ohio River.  Their peak numbers often occur on the same day every year, April 10 at Dashields Dam.

When the Bonaparte’s get home to the boreal forest they eat insects on the wing, build their nests in conifers, and become so secretive that they’re hard to find.  That’s the other half of their double lives.

Here come the “Bonnies.”  They’re heading for the trees.

 

(nest photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, Pawtuxent Wildlife Research Center USGS. Click on the image to see the original.  Bonaparte’s gull portraits by Chuck Tague)

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Mar 28 2014

Red Rimmed Eyes

Published by under Water and Shore

Ring-billed gull in breeding plumage (photo by Shawn Collins)

It’s spring and even the gulls look snazzy!

Look closely and you’ll notice that adult ring-billed gulls have put on their breeding plumage.  Not only are their heads snowy white but the skin around their eyes and beaks is bright red.

Here’s another view.

Ring-billed gull in breeding plumage (photo by Shawn Collins)

Watch for them to open their mouths.  Wow!  Talk about red!

 

Until recently they were boring in basic plumage with speckly head feathers and black skin like this.

Ring-billed gull in basic plumage (photo by Shawn Collins)

I wasn’t paying attention when they made this transformation and was stunned last weekend when one opened his very red mouth.

Look for their red-rimmed eyes while they’re still in town.  They’ll be in southwestern Pennsylvania for a couple more weeks, waiting for their breeding grounds to thaw up north.

 

(photos by Shawn Collins)

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Mar 25 2014

Mad, Mad Mergs

Three male red-breasted mergansers pursue a female

Red-breasted mergansers already look a little crazy because of their wild head feathers.  Here you see they’ve really gone nuts.

In this photo by Pat Gaines three male red-breasted mergansers are courting one female. The guys zip around and churn the water like jet skis, abruptly halt and point their bills skyward, dip their necks and crowd around her.

The lady doesn’t look like she wants this much attention.  Pat wrote that she flew away pursued by all three males and concluded, “So this is what it must be like for a beautiful woman at a singles bar.”

Click on the photo for a closeup and here for a video of their courtship behavior.

 

(photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Notice how the feathers around the female’s eye form a dark circle.  It looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks.  ;)

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Mar 18 2014

Why Hooded Mergansers Have Hoods

March is the month for duck migration and a great time to watch them courting.

I mentioned last Thursday that common goldeneyes have an unusual courtship display.  So do hooded mergansers.

The males pump their heads, raise their crests, toss their heads forward as if to unfurl their hoods, and waggle their heads side to side.   “Look at my white crest!”

They also throw their heads back and point their beaks to the sky.  As they bring their heads upright they say “Merg-merrrrrg!”  Listen to the video.  They sound like frogs!

So why does the hooded merganser have a hood?  Relentless female selection.  The ladies are so impressed by a good head toss that they pick the guys with the biggest, whitest hoods.  The guys with little hoods never have kids.

“The better to impress you, my dear.”

 

(video by Kathleen Fry on YouTube)

p.s. When they’re not courting hooded mergansers often keep their crests down. Click here to see what a difference the hood makes.

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Mar 16 2014

At Middle Creek

Tundra swans atMiddle Creek, 14 Mar 2014 (photo by Dave Kerr)

Though the lake at Middle Creek is ice-covered, snow geese and tundra swans are here in great numbers.

I say “here” because I’m at Middle Creek this morning.  I was considering the 8-hour round trip when Dave Kerr’s photos from Friday convinced me it was worthwhile.

Here are my favorites: three tundra swans landing, a string of snow geese …

Snow geese in flight, Middle Crek 14 Mar 14 (photo by Dave Kerr)

… and the glance.

A pair of tundra swans glances at each other, Middle Creek 14 Mar 14 (photo by Dave Kerr)

 

(photos by Dave Kerr)

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