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.
I mentioned last month that ring-billed gulls in breeding plumage have red rimmed eyes. Horned 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.
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.
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)