Mallard Party

My final birding trip of 2016 was to Haddon Lake Park, my original birding “hotspot”. I usually walk with my mom and sister at Historic Smithville Park, but if we ever have extra time we head down to Haddon Lake instead to visit the waterfowl. It was a nice way to end the year, because we attended a party of sorts while we were there.

It all started with spotting an unusual duck. As I mentioned in my last post, ducks often hybridize, so there’s an assortment of ducks in addition to Mallards at Haddon Lake. The duck in the middle of the picture below has features of both a Mallard and one of the white ducks that reside at the lake. We stopped to take a look a him. He was swimming by with a few friends and when they noticed we stopped they got out of the water and started walking towards us.

So there we were, the 3 of us and a small group of ducks. We were admiring how cute they were when we realized that more ducks were coming over to where we were standing. It started to get noisy with females quacking and males giving their little raspy quehp calls (When you hear a duck “quack” you are actually hearing the females; male’s don’t quack, they just quehp). 

ducks-1
Mallards with a hybrid in the middle (Image by BirdNation)

And before you know it, that’s when the party started. As you know, Mallards don’t tend to party alone, they like to hang out in flocks. So within a minutes time we went from a small gathering to a full out Mallard Party (with the hybrids being the special guests) with the entire flock flying in from all sides of the lake.

ducks-4
Mallard Party (Image by BirdNation)

Even Pretty Lady Duck, a lighter female, who I blogged about a few months ago made an appearance. I was happy to see her.

ducks-2
Pretty Lady Duck (Image by BirdNation)

Now let’s be real for a quick second. We all know what they wanted: food. Unfortunately, people feed these ducks, so they expect a handout when visitors stop to look at them. (We interrupt this lighthearted duck story with an important PSA: please DO NOT feed waterfowl. It’s bad for their health, the surrounding area, and encourages unwanted behaviors. Thank you. And now back to our regularly scheduled story). Of course we didn’t have food for them, but it was cool to get to see them up close.

The party last for a few minutes. We giggled and observed them while they quacked and observed us. A Mallard party tends to be a little chaotic though, with lots of quacking, running, and even a small fight breaking out. They then realized that we weren’t going to feed them, so the ducks started making their way back to the water.

We said are goodbyes and continued to walk the loop. But it seemed like the Mallards weren’t ready to say goodbye just yet. For about a minute or two, the flock decided to swim next to us. It was like we were the leaders of the Duck Parade.

ducks-3
Leading the Duck Parade (Image by BirdNation)

We eventually lost them, but the moment was fun while it lasted. During the walk we also observed some Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls, Dark-eyed Juncos, a Blue Jay, and a Red-tailed Hawk. But I though having a Mallard Party was a fitting way to celebrate the end of another birding year. I look forward to the fascinating birding adventures that await in 2017. Happy New Year, friends. See you in 2017!

Advertisements

Cape May Point

On Wednesday, Dave and I made our way down to Cape May for the second time. We went to two locations: Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows. The two parks actually connect, so it was easy to explore both locations.

We arrived at Cape May Point mid-morning. It was in the low 4os, which to me is perfect winter birding weather. The first stop was the Hawk Watch platform, which I sometimes see listed on as a location on the NJ Rare bird list. No rare birds today, but the lake was full:  Mute Swans, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Hooded Mergansers, 2 Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, Canada Geese, and even a male Gadwall (the first life list bird of the day).

img_1929
Double-crested Cormorants (Image by BirdNation)

There are a few small ponds that dot the trail. At one of them we found 4 Mallards swimming together. One looked a little unusual though. He had some Mallard features; such as the curly black tail and yellow bill, but he only had a partial green head and lacked the white neck ring. He clearly is some sort of hybrid, which is common among ducks. Upon further investigation on the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, I found that he may possibly be a Mallard and American Black Duck hybrid. This hybrid features darker plumage and a partially green head.

img_1827
Possibly Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid (Image by BirdNation)

The next pond over was a small group of Bufflehead (who I just featured for Waterfowl Wednesday). Buffleheads tend to stay in small groups as opposed to large flocks. They were swimming closely together and sometimes would seem to dive at the same time. There were also 4 American Widgeons (life list bird #2). Males have white and green heads while females have gray-brown heads with a dark smudge around the eye. They kept going over to the 2 Mute Swans, almost swimming into them at times.

img_1872
Male American Widgeon (Image by BirdNation)

While watching the Widgeons and Buffleheads, a small gull flew overhead. It was a graceful and skillful flyer. Everyone once in awhile it would dive down to the water, and just as easily maneuver its way back into the air. I finally got a good look at it, and it wasn’t our usual gull: it was a non-breeding Bonaparte’s Gull (life list #3)! It had a small black dot on each side of its head. This gull was a 1st winter Bonaparte’s. It had black wing tips and narrow dark patches on its upper wings. He gave us a pretty cool flight show, before flying off to a new pond. We continued on our way to the connector of the Point and South Cape May Meadows.

img_1840
1st winter Bonaparte’s Gull in flight (Image by BirdNation)
img_1852
Bonaparte’s Gull (Image by David Horowitz)

We didn’t spend too much time in the Meadows, but we did get to explore some of the same ponds that we saw on our last Cape May trip. As expected there were large flocks of waterfowl: Mallards, Shovelers, Pintails, Ruddys, Buffleheads, and more Swans. The was a species that we didn’t expect to see: Tree Swallows. I though they would all be gone by this point, but there were a decent amount of them flying over the pond. There were also a large number of Turkey Vultures. They found a carcass of a gull, so they were having a feast across the pond. We did find one other gull at this pond: over on the side we were on. He looked pretty worn and a little chubby. I’m not sure what kind of gull it was, but we joked that maybe he looked kind of sad because his friend was being eaten by vultures.

img_1922
The “chubby” gull (Image by BirdNation)

As we were listening to some Carolina Wrens sing, a flock of quick, small birds flew into nearby trees. It was a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers. They were eating little white berries. They were quick, but Dave ended up getting a really great picture of one.

img_1899
Male Yellow-rumped Warbler (Image by David Horowitz)

We didn’t see anything new on the trip back to the car, but we saw a nice variety of species on our trip. It has been a great month for waterfowl: we added 6 new species to our life list over the past couple of weeks. I’m glad we had a chance to return to Cape May for some winter birding. I hope to visit Cape May again for the spring migration.

Have you gone winter birding yet? If you have tell me about it in the comments.

Bufflehead: Waterfowl Wednesday

One of the winter visitors in my area is the Bufflehead, a small sea duck. Today I saw a few of these energetic ducks in Cape May, so I wanted to feature them this week (a post about today’s Cape May trip is coming soon). Here are 5 interesting facts about Buffleheads.

  • Buffleheads are one of the smallest ducks, at 13.5 inches in length. Adult males have black backs, white bodies, dark heads, and a large white patch that circles around the back of the head. Although their head looks black from a distance, they have a glossy purple and green iridescence that shines in the light. Females and immature males are gray-brown with large white patches on their cheeks.
buffleheads
Male and female Buffleheads
  • Their genus name Bucephala, comes from the  Greek word “boukephalos”, meaning “bullheaded”. This name is used to describe the duck’s oddly bulbous heads.
  • Due to their small size, Buffleheads almost exclusively nest in Northern Flicker cavities and sometimes Pileated Woodpecker cavities. They may use the same nest site for many years.
799px-bufflehead_rwd3
Female Bufflehead (Image by DickDaniels via http://carolinabirds.org/)
  • Buffleheads are diving ducks. In order to dive they compress their plumage to squeeze out the air and plunge into the water. They keep their wings close to their bodies while diving. Sometimes they swallow their food, which is mainly crustaceans and aquatic invertebrates, while still underwater.
bufflehead-male-diving-1
A diving male (Image via birdinginformation.com)
  • They are one of the few ducks that are monogamous, and may stay with their mate for many years.

 

Harlequin Duck: Waterfowl Wednesday

Hello friends! Happy Winter Solstice! Today is the return of Waterfowl Wednesday. Waterfowl Wednesday is a feature I started at the end of last winter to highlight some of the waterfowl visitors in my area. I love waterfowl, so I decided to write this feature again this winter. Waterfowl includes ducks, geese, and swans.

Our first bird of the season is the clown-like Harlequin Duck. I saw my first Harlequin almost two weeks ago, when Dave and I took a trip to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park.

Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)

Description:

Harlequin Ducks are medium-sized sea ducks. Like many other kinds of ducks, they exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females have different plumage. Male’s bodies are a slate blue with a large chestnut patches on their wing. They have white bands on their feathers, collar, and down the back of the neck that are bordered with black lines. On their face they have white crescent-shaped marks before their eyes and a white dot behind the eyes. Females are a duller gray-brown, with white patches around their eyes and a white dot behind the eyes. The male’s tail feather is longer than the female’s.

hadu7
Male Harlequin Duck (Image by Steve Byland, via https://nationalzoo.si.edu/)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Pacific population: Northwest North America from Alaska south to Montana, Atlantic population: Baffin Island, Iceland, Greenland, parts of Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland. Winter: along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts

Habitat:

Summer: mountain streams, fast-flowing rocky rivers. Winter: salt water and rocky coastlines

harlequin-duck-female-1-ew
Female Harlequin Duck (Image via birdzilla.com)

Diet:

Harlequins are diving ducks, but may also dabble at the surface for food. Eats mollusks, fish, insects, and crustaceans.

Breeding/Nesting:

Harlequins start to breed at around 2 years old and form pairs in winter and spring. Many males my try to court one female by head-bobbing and tail-raising. Nests are shallow depressions in the ground that are lined with plant material The nests are placed near fast-moving water sources in forested areas.

Only females incubate the 5-7 eggs for about 27-30 days. When leaving the nest she will cover the eggs. Young are precocial, so they leave the nest fairly quickly after hatching. They are able to feed themselves and can dive, but usually dabble. Broods usually combine to be tended to by multiple females.  First flights usually take place 5-6 weeks after hatching.

Sounds: 

Call: a mouse-like squeak, because of this call they are sometimes refer to as the “sea mouse”. Females give a nasal eek-eek, males give a whistle tiv

harlequinduckph4
Harlequins in flight (Image by Paul Higgins via utahbirds.org)

Conservation: 

Not much is know about populations, but the eastern populations has declined over the last centuries. More than half of the eastern population winters in coastal Maine.

Fun Facts: 

  • The species name comes from the Latin word “histrio”, meaning “actor”. The name “Harlequin” comes from a character that is colorfully-dressed from “Commedia dell’arte”.
  • Due to living in rough enviroments, studies have found that many Harlequin ducks have had broken bones.
  • Harlequins are one of the three ducks in the world who breed in fast-moving streams.
  • In the winter, Harlequins are usually found in loose flocks that also contain scoters and eiders.

Hitting the Waterfowl Jackpot

Last Sunday was about 35 degrees, making it perfect weather to look for waterfowl. To find them, Dave and I decided that we should go to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park  on Long Beach Island, NJ.

It seems that going to Barnegat Lighthouse SP in December has turned into somewhat of a tradition. This is the 3rd year in a row that we’ve made a December trip, but the difference this time: it was 35 degrees, not 75 degrees. Somehow it’s always really warm when we were able to go, so I was really excited about the cold, seasonal weather we were in for. The night before on one of my Facebook bird groups I saw that NJ Audubon took a trip to LBI on Saturday. They saw all sorts of waterfowl, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, and more that day, so I was hoping that we would be lucky on our trip. Turns out we were.

We started our trek on the cement walkway right outside the lighthouse. This area is usually swarming with tourists, but thanks to the cold weather it was just us. This is where we got our first glimpse of Long-tailed Ducks. Long-tailed Ducks spend their summers breeding in the Arctic and spend the winter all along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts of North America. We get to see them in their winter plumage. Males are striking with a mix of white, black, and gray and a pink spot on the tip of the bill. Females are duller, but stockier with a thick bill. And of course, they have distinctive long tails that stand out even from a far distance. Unfortunately they were too far away for us to get any pictures, but they were cool to see. Life list addition #1 for the day.

From the cement walkway you can walk onto the jetty. The jetty stretches all the way down to the south end of the beach and out into the ocean. During the summer it’s covered with fishermen, but today it was covering in Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. While standing on the rocks were were able to watch gulls flying out over the ocean as well as Double-crested Cormorants, Brants and Common Loons bobbing in the water.

img_1667
Herring Gull with a crab (Image by BirdNation)

Usually in December we see Ruddy Turnstones hanging out on the jetty but instead we had a surprise guest: a Merlin. Merlins are small falcons, not much larger than American Kestrels. They usually spend time in open woodland, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to see on at the beach (although according to e-bird you can find them in this location). We watched him for a bit before he flew off. We decided to get off the jetty and walk down to the southern tip of the beach.

img_1672
Merlin on the jetty (Image by David Horowitz)

The south end of the beach is usually where we see different kinds of gulls wading around. We did see many Herring and Ring-billed Gulls on the way, but there was also a small flock of Ruddy Ducks floating around. The tide seemed lower in this area, and there was a smaller jetty leading out into the ocean that we normally don’t see.

That’s when we hit the jackpot. Everything we were looking for that NJ Audubon mentioned was in this location. There were Harlequin Ducks (Life List #2), Common Eiders (Life List #3), Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers (Life List #4), Dunlins, and a Black Scoter (Life List #5). They were all scattered around the area; swimming, diving, walking around the rocks. There were different kinds of gulls and Ruddy Ducks mixed in too. Every December I go to this location looking for these species but usually don’t see them since it’s always unseasonably warm when we’re able to go. But this day was special, and am so happy I was able to experience some of these winter species for the first time.

The excitement wasn’t over however. The Merlin reappeared on the jetty and we were able to sneak our way a little closer to see him before he flew off. We also observed a flock of Snow Buntings. I only ever saw one Snow Bunting before. We were at Amico Island at the end of October last year, and there was a single bunting in a field. I didn’t know what it was at the time and didn’t have a camera, so it remained a mystery until I saw a picture of one a month later. When I went to add it to my checklist, E-bird didn’t believe me! But this time I was positive, and was getting to see a flock of about 80. They flew around erratically, landing for a second before taking flight again. They were extremely hard to follow, so my pictures turned out pretty badly, but they were awesome to see. (Below is the best picture I was able to get, still pretty bad, but at least you can see their colors).

img_1779
Snow Bunting Flock (Image by BirdNation)

The annual December Long Beach Island birding trip was a success, with 5 new birds added to our Life List. I’m excited to see more winter visitors over the next few months. What’s the most exciting winter bird you’ve seen so far? Tell me about it in the comments.

Pileated Woodpecker Wednesday!

Today is our last Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I can’t believe winter is officially only one week away! A weekly dedication to woodpeckers was really enjoyable for me to write, but I’m also looking forward to the return of Waterfowl Wednesday. Speaking of waterfowl, on Sunday Dave and I added 4 species of waterfowl to our life list at Long Beach Island. I can’t wait to tell you all about it (post will be coming soon about that).

On November 14, 2015 I achieved one of my birding dreams: to see a Pileated Woodpecker. (It was one of my best birding moments so far, and you can read about it here at Pileated Dreams). My fascination with Pileated Woodpeckers started long before I ever saw one, and has only increased over time as I eagerly await the moment I find another one. Here are some interesting facts about this awe-inspiring bird.

  • The Pileated Woodpecker is the 6th largest woodpecker in the world, and the largest in North America. It’s about the size of a crow, but despite being so big it’s more often heard than seen.
pileated-woodpecker-natureman
Pileated in Flight (Image by NatureMan via birdsandblooms)
  • Like the Northern Flicker, Pileateds primarily eat ants. Their diet also consists of a variety of insects, nuts, and fruit. They occasionally eat at suet feeders. (Quick side note: if you watch Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Feeder Cam, you can sometimes see a Pileated show up at their suet feeder. It’s quite a sight!)
  • They are known for making large, rectangular cavities in dead trees. Pileateds depend on a variety of habitats, but mostly mature deciduous or coniferous forests. Cavities can be deep and up to a foot long. They use the tunnels within the cavity of catch beetle larvae with their long tongues. To hammer, Pileateds pull their necks back far from the tree and pull on the trunk with their feet to make a heavy blow.
pileated-cavity
Pileated cavity at Rancocas Nature Center, NJ (Image by BirdNation)
  • Pileateds are pretty distinctive, so they are not usually confused with other species. Sometimes they are confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are larger than Pileateds, and although also jet black, have large white wing patches on the outer wing. Pileateds have large white patches under their wings. The both have bright red crests, but the Pileated has malar stripes. It’s unknown if the Ivory-billed is extinct at the moment, so it’s more than likely that you’re seeing a Pileated.
  • How can you tell the difference between a male and female? The male’s red crest extends down to his upper mandible, while the female’s forehead is a dusky grayish-brown. The male’s malar stripes are red and the female’s stripes are black.
  • They hold large territories; spanning as far as one mile or more for a single pair. Pairs are usually monogamous and mate for life. They defend their territory throughout the year. Defense strategies include raising their crest, drumming, calling, and displaying the white patch under their wings.
pileatedwoodpeckerpair
A mated pair (male left, female right) Image by By AndrewBrownsword – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4348147

I hope you enjoyed Woodpecker Wednesday! What’s your favorite North American woodpecker? Tell me about it in the comments! The Pileated is mine (obviously! :-P)

 

Mystery of the Red Feathers

Hi friends! Sorry I disappeared for a bit. Being a second-time college student and full-time music teacher, I am currently in the midst of finals and concert season, so it’s been pretty hectic around here. I’m hoping to be back to writing more frequently in the next few days.

Instead of doing the normal Woodpecker Wednesday profile post, I wanted to share an interesting woodpecker study. There was a woodpecker mystery that was recently solved by scientists. The mystery: red feathers in Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers. The answer was not what scientists were expecting.

The Northern Flicker is the most abundant woodpecker in North America. Although pretty common, they are probably the most unusual of woodpeckers. They mainly feed on the ground on ants, are weak tree excavators, and even roost in trees less than other woodpeckers. Another unique feature is their intricate plumage, which is brown and tan or light peach, with black belly spots and a “zebra-back”.

When John Jame Audubon first saw Northern Flickers in 1843 at Yellowstone, Wyoming he was puzzled. He saw five Northern Flickers that all varied dramatically in plumage color. Some were red, some were yellow, and other were in between. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was in what is now considered “the hybrid zone”.

There are two subspecies of Northern Flickers: the “Red-shafted” Flicker of the west and the “Yellow-shafted” Flicker of the East. They frequently hybridize in the Great Plains region of the United States, south to Texas and north to Canada. This hybrid zone is at least 4,000 years old. Unless you live in the hybrid zone, you are most likely to see either one subspecies or the other.

Over a century later, scientist were puzzled one again about Flicker plumage. Starting the the 1960s, some biologists began to notice that there were Flickers over a 1,000 miles east of the hybrid zone with red feathers. But there weren’t quite as bright as the western “red-shafted” plumage, they were more of a copper color. Some ornithologists speculated that the color was being cause by genes from the red-shafted being spread to the yellow-shafted population. Something wasn’t quite right with that explanation though, so studies continued.

But now the mystery is solved! A recent study published on October 12, 2016 in The Auk revealed what was causing the color change. And it turns out hybridization has nothing to do with it.

The answer: honeysuckle berries.

Red-shafted Flickers have red feathers because of 4-keto-carotenoids, a type of pigment. The “red” Yellow-shafted Flickers get their color from a pigment called rhodoxanthin. Rhodoxanthin is rare in the wild and only found in certain plants. By eating berries from honeysuckle plants, particularly the Morrow’s, Tartarin, and their hybrid Bell’s honeysuckles, they are ingesting this pigment. These “red-yellow” Flickers are eating this food source around when they molt and acquire new plumage.

So why did it take scientist so long to solve this mystery? The Northern Flicker’s diet consists heavily of ants and other insects. Since berries is a smaller portion of their diet, the pigment they are eating is usually not as obvious, so it took scientists a longer time to notice.

Although this mystery is solved for the moment, there are so many other ornithological enigmas to the study (how about the mystery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?). But that’s the great thing about ornithology and other biological sciences: there are so many fascinating and exciting discoveries just waiting to be found.

If you want to read the actual study you can read it here:

The Auk Ornithological Advances

What kind of Northern Flickers do you see? Tell me about them in the comments.