With almost no open water on lakes Great and small, ducks and gulls have been spending lots of time on our rivers. This year we’re also finding a higher than usual number of red-necked grebes.
Eleven years ago I saw my first ever red-necked grebe on the Allegheny River at Rosston (March 2, 2003). Still in basic plumage, he was plain gray and white with a long pointed bill slightly yellow at the base. He held up the feathers at the top edges of his head; it made his head look lumpy. But he didn’t have a red neck. He wasn’t in breeding plumage.
And so it went. I periodically saw red-necked grebes but never their red necks because they usually molt into breeding plumage after they leave Pennsylvania. Richard Crossley’s illustration from The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland (above) shows the basic and breeding plumages of red-necked grebes but emphasizes their appearance in winter because the grebes don’t breed in Britain and Ireland either.
So I was excited to read Jim Hausman’s March 6 report that there was a red-necked grebe at Duck Hollow and the bird had a red neck.
I drove down after work on Friday and found two grebes molting into breeding plumage. Ta dah! Not a Life Bird but a “Life Plumage.” Here’s Jim Hausman’s photo of one of them.
After all these years I finally saw red.
(Illustration at top: Red-necked grebe by Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland), Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.
Photo at bottom by Jim Hausman)
This shell is so beautiful that it threatens the existence of the animal that wears it.
The candy cane snail (Liguus virgineus) is a land-based snail found on the island of Hispaniola, home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Because of its beauty it has been over-collected for the shell trade, making it hard to find and endangering the snail.
This particular shell is in the collection of the photographer, H. Zell, whose photo is one of the finalists for Wikimedia Common’s 2013 Picture of the Year.
Voting ended yesterday but you can still view Picture Of The Year finalists here.
(photo by H. Zell, Creative Commons license at Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
The frozen Great Lakes have prompted a lot of gulls and waterfowl to visit Pittsburgh’s rivers this winter. Bird reports for the past month often mention long-tailed ducks, white-winged scoters, red-breasted mergansers, redheads and canvasbacks.
These photos by Steve Gosser reminded me that of all the birds listed above, redheads and canvasbacks are the most confusing. Both are diving ducks with red heads, black breasts, dark butts, and white or gray backs. Both could be named “redheads,” so what is the “canvas” back that makes the difference?
Despite their names the “canvas back” is not the easiest way to tell them apart. The best way is to look at their heads and bills in profile:
- Canvasbacks have long sloping foreheads and bills that make a straight line from forehead to tip.
- Redheads have round, bulbous heads and an angle where the bill meets the face.
If both birds are present, the canvasback is the larger one. If the light is good you’ll see additional distinguishing features. Let’s take a closer look.
Redheads have pale bills with a black tip. The males’ backs are gray and eyes are yellow. Up close you can really see the bulbous head.
Canvasbacks have black bills. The males have red eyes and white backs with a faint pattern like woven canvas, but that’s something you’ll never see unless you’re a duck hunter. The sloping face and forehead are really evident up close and are the main way to identify female canvasbacks who are basically brown.
It’s easy for me to tell the two ducks apart but my brain gets in the way sometimes when I have to name them. I may look at a canvasback I think, “That duck has a red head so it’s a … redhead.” Nope!
The hardest part is finding the noun.
(photos by Steve Gosser)
Thanks to this photo by John Beatty we know the Susquehanna River is iced over at Marietta.
Beautiful… but no ice fishing.
Click on the photo to see a closeup.
(photo by John Beatty)
These ruddy ducks that Shawn Collins photographed last weekend look so brown and bland you might wonder why they’re called “ruddy.”
Right now they’re wearing their boring basic (winter) plumage but the bird at left shows a hint that spring is coming. His bill is turning blue.
During the breeding season male ruddy ducks have sky blue bills, ruddy body feathers and very black heads. They swim with their tails cocked and their head and neck feathers raised, the better to show off the bubbling display to the ladies … like this:
Watch for male ruddy ducks to complete this transformation.
You’ll know it’s spring when they have blue bills.
(photo of two ruddy ducks in basic plumage by Shawn Collins. photo of single ruddy duck in breeding plumage from Wikimedia Commons — click on the image to see the original)
OK, it’s cold again, but not (yet) so cold as the worst we’ve seen this month so I think we can afford to get “subtropical” today.
Chuck Tague photographed this reddish egret in the subtropics between the 35th parallel and the Tropic of Cancer — specifically, in Florida.
Reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens) are found from Florida and the U.S. Gulf Coast, down both coasts of Central America to the Caribbean edge of South America. But they’re not found everywhere. They only fish in shallow saltwater so they’re restricted to specific locations, always coastal. Click here for their range map.
Some reddish egrets are actually white but most have this distinctive reddish head, gray body and black-tipped pink bill. They’re easy to identify if you watch them hunt. They jump and dart like crazed dancers with their wings open.
Don’t take this beautiful bird for granted. It’s listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List because “despite its large range it occupies a restricted habitat and is patchily distributed.”
If you’re at the coast within its range, take the opportunity to look for a reddish egret.
(photo by Chuck Tague)
Tired of the weather yo-yo? Let’s get tropical.
Here’s a southern hemisphere bird that ranges from Mexico to Argentina. She closely resembles the belted kingfisher, is virtually the same size, and has the same hunting habits.
But she’s green. Her genus is Chloroceryle whereas the belted kingfisher’s genus is Megaceryle.
Amazon kingfishers (Chloroceryle amazona) are sexually dimorphic and follow the dimorphism of most birds — the male is more colorful than the female. This one is female. The males have rust color on their breasts. Click here to see a male Amazon kingfisher.
Belted kingfishers are backwards — the males are less colorful while the females have rust color on their breasts. Click here to see a male, and here for a female.
This Amazon kingfisher was perched over water during Charlie Hickey’s fall trip to Costa Rica. Click on his photo for a closer view of this tropical bird.
(photo by Charlie Hickey)
Yesterday Jerry McWilliams reported a single-day record of red-breasted mergansers at Presque Isle State Park: 46,600 birds!
Every fall Jerry conducts a daily waterbird count for several hours at Sunset Point. On Friday he and Roger Donn watched “huge flocks [of red-breasted mergansers] flying in off the lake and concentrating north of Gull Point, later moving west in groups of 100 to 300 birds for the entire morning.”
Where did these birds come from and where are they going? Red-breasted mergansers breed along the ocean and lake shores of tundra and boreal forests. They spend the winter at the coast from Canada to Mexico or at the Great Lakes. The birds Jerry is counting at Lake Erie have reached their final winter destination unless the lake freezes over. If that happens they’ll move on.
How is Jerry McWilliams sure of these numbers? For you and me the count would be quite a challenge but not for him. Jerry’s an expert at identifying and counting birds. He know the shapes of waterbirds, their flying style and habits. Color hardly matters. He uses a scope and estimates in groups. I watched him do it for a brief time last weekend when I visited Presque Isle. There were only 7,858 red-breasted mergansers that day and I thought that was a lot!
If you’re at Presque Isle looking for snowy owls, stop by Sunset Point and you can watch, too.
Read the count details for Friday December 6 are at this link on PABIRDS.
(photo of red-breasted mergansers in flight by lgooch on Flickr via Creative Commons License. Click on the image to see the original)
p.s. This is more than twice the number of crows we’ve ever counted in Pittsburgh in the winter.
Fifty years and fifteen days ago, the island of Surtsey emerged from the sea off the southern coast of Iceland.
On November 14, 1963 the cook on the trawler Ísleifur II saw smoke on the water. The captain motored over to see if it was a ship on fire or a volcano (in Iceland you know to include “volcano” on your list) and yes, it was a volcano.
From a spot of smoke it grew quickly into an island. Here it is erupting in 1963.
Named for a Norse fire giant, Surtsey continued to erupt for the next three and a half years until it grew even larger than it is today. The island is literally losing ground. It was 1 square mile at its maximum; now it’s only half. The ocean immediately took away the loose rocks leaving behind hard volcanic cliffs. They will eventually erode as well, it’ll just take longer.
For now Surtsey has settled down to a bland, quiet existence as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most studied places on earth. What began as barren hot rock now hosts at least 69 plant species and 15 species of nesting birds (nice cliffs!). Even spiders have drifted in and set up housekeeping.
Two unexpected plants arrived with human visitors and had to be eradicated lest they became invasive. A tomato plant grew from a seed deposited by diarrhea (yes, it happens) and some boys planted potatoes. Wrong! Those had to go.
Right now Surtsey is probably under snow as in this photo from January 2009.
Very quiet, but she has an amazing history. See great photos of her fiery birth and read more of her history, including the bizarre French territorial dispute, at the VolcanoCafé blog.
(photos of Surtsey from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the original)
Speaking of pied shorebirds as I did yesterday … when I see American oystercatchers I’m reminded of black skimmers (Rynchops niger). Both have bold black-and-white plumage and long beaks but their differences are striking.
Unlike oystercatchers, skimmers have very short orange legs and a beak whose mandibles are two different lengths. They use their long lower mandible — 2-3 cm longer than the upper — to skim food from the ocean’s surface in flight. Click here to see.
Black skimmers aren’t born like this. At hatching their beaks are normal but by the time they fledge four weeks later their lower mandibles have grown 1 cm longer than the uppers, halfway to this striking adult appearance.
One more amazing beak fact: Black skimmers’ beaks look fat from the side but if you see them straight on they are knife-thin like this.
The better to skim with, my dear.
(photo by Steve Gosser)