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:
In the spring they molt into sharp black, gray and white breeding plumage.
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.
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.
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.
Despite today’s awful forecast, despite the prediction of 7oF tomorrow morning, gusty winds and up to 2″ of snow, be assured that spring is here. The tundra swans are back!
This morning at 4:45am I awoke to the whoo-ing call of swans in flight. I opened the window and … Yes! a flock of tundra swans was flying over my city neighborhood in the dark.
At that moment it was 49oF with no rain and a light wind out of the east-northeast, almost perfect flying weather for birds heading northwest. Their goal is the Arctic coastal tundra from Alaska to Baffin Island. In the fall they typically fly 1,000 miles non-stop from Minnesota to Chesapeake Bay but they make the trip in easy stages in the spring, pausing to wait for the lakes to thaw.
“My” swans were probably heading for Pymatuning and Lake Erie where there’s not much open water yet. Meanwhile other flocks are heading for Middle Creek where the situation is much the same. But the birds know spring is coming. They’re heading north.
Soon Middle Creek will be filled with the spectacle of snow geese and tundra swans on the move. Click here for information and a video.
This month while the ducks are stalled in Pennsylvania waiting for northern lakes to thaw, they spend their time courting. Some species merely chase the ladies. Others have elaborate displays. My favorite is the common goldeneye who tosses his head so far back it looks as if he’ll hurt his neck.
In this video two male goldeneyes (blue-black iridescent heads with white face patches) show off for two females (brown heads). The males raise or lower their head feathers to make their heads look round or flat. When they toss their heads their feathers are raised and their heads look enormous. The gesture is not enough. They also make a rattling peent, “Look at me!”
If the lady likes what she sees she swims with head and neck outstretched as if she’s dipping her neck in the water. This suggests her posture during copulation so if course it keeps the action going.
“Do that again,” she says, “Toss your head for me.”
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.
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 and think, “That duck has a red head so it’s a … redhead.” Nope!