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!
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.
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.