Blog-iversary!

Hi friends!

I realized that today is the 1 year anniversary of when I started BirdNation! I can’t believe it’s been a whole year. BirdNation has been a smaller part of a larger journey I’ve been embarking on the last few years.

Over the past few years, birds have had an incredible impact on my life. Learning about birds has opened up a whole new world for me, and has brought peace, wonder, and a deeper appreciation for all nature into my life that I was severely lacking. Until I starting birding, I didn’t realize how much of life I was actually missing out on. There was a whole new world to explore, and not just for birds, but anything relating to nature.

And as the years have been passing by, I’ve been changing. Craving a simpler existence than the life I have now. I’m a public school music teacher, and don’t get me wrong, that’s by no means a terrible existence. Teaching can be wonderful, but every year the nature of public school education becomes harder to handle. And I can feel the stress chipping away at me physically, mentally, and spiritually, so birding has become one of the few parts of my life (besides my wonderful family, friends, and pets) to bring me peace .

All of this got me thinking: what can I do to help renew myself? I love to teach and I love nature. Every time I read about climate change or environmental issue I always wish I can make more of a difference. And that’s when it struck me: maybe I should try to become an environmental educator.

So one fateful day in December 2015, I made a crazy choice: I enrolled in college as a biology major. I figured, what do I have to lose? I have a whole new world of possibilities waiting for me.

Now, I personally know people who think I’m insane for wanting to change fields. Yeah, maybe I am. And yes, I do know I have to make money to survive. I will. But taking a step forward is invigorating, and for the first time in awhile I’m excited for the future. I need to spread my wings and fly :-). Maybe I’ll land gracefully like a Carolina Chickadee, or land stumbling and awkwardly like a Laysan Albatross, but I’ll never know if I don’t try to soar. Besides, I have a back-up plan: to be a public school biology teacher, and avert my fate for becoming prematurely deaf (I’m a band teacher, so my world is very loud haha).

BirdNation was one of my first stepping stones to being an environmental educator. I thought that starting a blog solely about birds would be a great was to practice teaching others about the life of birds. I also wanted to connect with other people who are just as passionate about nature as I was.

And blogging has exceeded my expectations. I’m so happy to get to connect with you, my fabulous readers, who have brought me so much joy through your blogs. Thank you for spending your time reading my posts. You’ve helped me grow as an educator more than you know! There are so many awesome bird experiences to be had and things to learn about the avian world. I can’t wait to share them with you here at the blog.

I’m looking forward to another wonderful year of birds with you here at BirdNation!

yellow-warbler-singing

 

 

 

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Snow Goose: Waterfowl Wednesday

Today’s featured waterfowl is the Snow Goose, a winter visitor who travels in flocks that can number to the several hundred thousand.

I remember my first experience with Snow Geese a few winters ago. It was at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. A large flock flew in and made landed in middle of a field, honking loudly. There were thousands of them, and it was quite a spectacle to watch. There’s nothing quite like experiencing a flock of Snow Geese. Have you experienced a Snow Goose flock? Tell me about it in the comments.

Snow Goose (Chen caerulesens)

Description:

Snow Geese come in two color morphs: white and dark (or “blue”) morph.White adult Snow Geese are mainly white with black primary feathers and pink legs/bills. White juveniles have grayish upperparts and dark legs/bills. Dark adults have grayish-brown bodies with white heads and pink legs/bills, while juveniles are dark overall. There is a considerable amount of variation between birds that have a mix of white and dark morph plumage.

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White Morph Snow Geese (Image by Jeff Lewis via fws.gov/refuge/mackay_island

Range:

Summer (breeding): high arctic and subarctic areas of Canada and Northern Alaska. Migrates in large flocks through the middle of North America to reach winter destinations on the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast into parts of the Midwest USA, and scattered areas around the Western United States. Snow Geese for 3 populations: west, central, and east; and will migrate south in the same region.

Habitat:

Tundra during breeding season; winters in agricultural fields, saltmarshes, streams, ponds, grasslands, and lakes.

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Dark, or “blue” morph (Image by Adrian Pingstone via wikimedia commons)

Diet:

Almost entirely plant materials: grasses, seeds, sedges, horsetails, shrubs, grains; and will consume any part of a plant. May also eat berries. Goslings (young geese) may eat insect larvae

Breeding/Nesting:

Snow Geese usually start to breed around 3 years old, and may mate for life. In courtship displays, a pair will face each other and repeatedly stretch their necks up in unison. Pairs will pick a nest site together, but the female will build the nest. She will put a scrape in the ground and may add natural materials. As she lays more eggs, the female will line the nest with feathers plucked from her breast. Females can incubate the 2-6 eggs for up to 21 hours a day, with the male standing guard to defend the nest site. After 22-25 days of incubation, the goslings will hatch and leave the nest site within a few hours. Being precocial, they can forage for themselves, but will be tended to by the parents. Goslings fledge around 42-50 days after hatching.

Sounds:

One of the noisiest of waterfowl, giving a one-syllable harsh honk. Family groups will communicate using guttural notes.

Conservation:

Snow Goose numbers have grown considerably over the last century. Hunting is permitted, and about 400,000 geese annually are hunted in the United States and Canada.

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Flock of Snow Geese (Image via wildfowlmag.com)

Fun Facts:

  • There are 2 races of Snow Geese: the Greater Snow Goose, who breeds in the northeastern region and winters on the Atlantic Coast, and the Lesser Snow Goose.
  • While choosing a mate, a Snow Goose will usually choose another goose of the same “morph” (white or “blue”), or a mate that looks similar to its family members.
  • Although their main activities are eating and resting, Snow Geese are strong swimmers, fliers, and walkers. Within the first 3 weeks of life, goslings may walk up to 50 miles with their parents to find a more suitable brood-rearing sight.

 

Dabbling and Diving Ducks

Hi everyone! Sorry I didn’t post a Waterfowl Wednesday yesterday. One of my pets has been sick, so it’s been a rough week for me and I haven’t been getting much sleep. So I’m going to make up for it today with a post about the different kinds of ducks.

Ducks can be split into 3 major categories: dabblers, divers, and sea ducks. Knowing what category a duck species belongs to can tell you a lot about their lifestyle.

Dabbling Ducks feed by “tipping up”: submerging their heads underwater with their tails in the air. They sit high up on the water and have longer bills that help them filter food from the water’s surface. A dabbler’s feet are towards the middle of their body, making it easier for them to walk on land. They have a small hind toe. Since they have long wings, it’s easier for dabblers to take flight at a moment’s notice right off the surface of the water. They also have brightly-colored speculum feathers (a patch of secondary feathers located on their sides). Dabblers are typically found (but not restricted to) shallow waters and are omnivorous; eating aquatic vegetation, worms, and insects. Dabbling ducks are also capable of diving, but rarely do so. Examples of dabbling ducks include Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Wood Ducks, Green-winged Teals, Blue-winged Teals, Gadwalls, and Northern Pintails (to name a few).

Diving Ducks feed by submerging their whole bodies underwater. Their feet are larger and further back on their bodies, allowing divers to be strong swimmers underwater. They tend to sit lower on the water’s surface. Their hind toes has a large lobe. Their wings are shorter than dabbler’s wings, so diver have to run and furiously flap to become air-born from the water. A diver’s speculum feathers are duller than a dabbler’s. Divers and dabblers can be found in the same habitat, but divers prefer open waters or saltwater habitats. Divers kick their strong feet to obtain submerged prey and will eat clams, fish, invertebrates, and plant material. Examples of diving ducks include Canvasbacks, Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, American Wigeons, and Redheads (to name a few).

Most people break ducks down into dabblers and divers, but you can go even further by breaking down divers into sea ducks. They generally live in marine habitats (mergansers tend to prefer riparian habitats). Many sea ducks have developed specialized glands so they can tolerate salt water. Their bills are also specialized and adapted to eat fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. Most sea ducks spend most of the year far north in Canada and Alaska, so they generally breed later than other kinds of ducks and raise their young in open waters. They are superb divers, and some can dive up to depths of 180 feet! Sea ducks include mergansers, eiders, smews, Harlequin Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, goldeneyes,  Buffleheads and scoters.

 

What’s your favorite kind of ducks? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. My favorite dabbler is the Wood Ducks, diver is the Ruddy Duck, and sea duck is the Hooded Merganser.

A New Adventure

Dave has been on his winter break from college for the past month, and tomorrow he starts a new semester. I was off from work today, so we wanted to go on a birding trip before all the chaos begins again.

Most days I past Willingboro Lakes Park while driving. It’s part of the Burlington County Park System, and I’ve been wanting to check it out for awhile. We decided today would be the perfect day to go on an adventure and see what it was like.

I’m convinced that it’s a hidden gem. On the side of a major highway, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. Once you step behind the gate though, there’s a lot to see. Willingboro Lakes was formerly called  Olympia Lake, a popular weekend/vacation hotspot in the 50s and 60s. I’m not too sure of all the history, but these days its run by the park system and is a popular fishing spot.

The entrance takes you down a small hill to the main lake. Today it was partially frozen. On the ice was a medium-sized flock of Ring-billed Gulls and in the distance swam a flock of Ring-necked Ducks. Ring-necked Ducks look similar to Scaups, but have a distinctly patterned bill that the scaups lack.

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Ring-necked Ducks, males and one female (brown) (Image by BirdNation)

The trail leads to a lake that’s closer to the highway. Here we saw a Mute Swan, Canada Geese, Mallards, Hooded Mergansers, and more Ring-necked Ducks. The Canada Geese were spread out throughout the water, and the ducks mixed in while swimming along with their own species. We watched the waterfowl for awhile before moving further along the trail. (Everything was pretty far away so this picture isn’t super clear, but you can see some Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks mixed in the middle)

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Canada Geese, Hooded Mergansers, and Ring-tailed Ducks (Image by BirdNation)

A wooded area of pines and other trees run along the sides of the lake to another smaller lake. Here we started to spot smaller birds, including White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, Robins, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Song Sparrows.

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White-breasted Nuthatch (Image by BirdNation)

A tiny bird flew to a tree that was in front of us. I though maybe it was a chickadee. The moment I looked through the binoculars I had a wonderful surprise: a Golden-crowned Kinglet! We’ve seen Ruby-crowned before, but not a Golden-crowned. Golden-crowns look similar to the Ruby, but males have an orange crest and females have a yellow crest. We were watching a female.

What a little acrobat she was! She zipped through the trees so quick it was hard to keep track of her (or get good pictures for that matter! It thought Dave did pretty well for how fast she was). She was pecking at the base of the pine needs to get food, every once in awhile hovering in one spot. We even captured some photos of her completely upside down hanging from a branch! Golden-crowned Kinglets are not much bigger than hummingbirds, but don’t let the size fool you; they are really hardy little birds. Goldens winter in areas where the temperatures can fall below -40 degrees at night! This little kinglet was fascinating to watch.

Once we made it to the end of the trail we turned around to explore the other side of the park. The left side of the trail takes you through a more heavily wooded area and wraps around the lake. On this side we spotted a pair of Carolina Wrens, American Robins, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

At one point we were behind some sort of business that had a lot of large trucks. Above the building were a flock of about 17 crows and a flock of Ring-billed Gulls. They seemed to be causing quite a ruckus; yelling out alarm calls. We thought maybe it had to do with all the noise from the business, but didn’t see anything unusual. Later we found the culprit:

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Cooper’s Hawk (Image by David Horowitz)

A Cooper’s Hawk. It was sitting high up on a tree that had bare branches. I’m not sure that a Cooper’s Hawk would have gone after a gull or crow, but they blew his cover anyway. The hawk didn’t seem to happy to be spotted, but observed the scene from its perch anyway.

We also found a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on the way back to the entrance. As it flew off to our right it let out its high pitched keeeer scream. (Ever see a bald eagle in a show or movie let out a screech? That’s a Red-tailed Hawk sound you’re hearing. I have no clue why, but for some reason the media portrays Bald Eagles making the wrong sound. Makes no sense, right??). A few seconds later we heard another keeeer scream from our left. Another hawk? Nope, a Blue Jay. Blue Jays have been known to imitate Red-tailed Hawks. By the way, if you’re not sure what a Red-tailed Hawk scream sounds like, I highly suggest you look it up, it’s one of my favorite bird sounds :-).

It was exciting to take an adventure to a park we never went to before. Willingboro Lakes is a really cool place; you can still see some parts of the abandoned structures from it’s heyday throughout the park, but it’s mainly been taken back by nature. It was a peaceful place to walk and we saw a great variety of species. Dave and I definitely plan on returning for another trip.

 

Mute Swan: Waterfowl Wednesday

For today’s Waterfowl Wednesday I decided to take break from ducks and talk about Mute Swans. Mute Swans are actually non-native to North America and considered by many as an “invasive” species.

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Mute Swans are very conspicuous. They are entirely white; with large, heavy bodies and short legs. They usually hold their long, slender necks in an “S”-shape. Mute Swans have orange bills with a black base. Cygnets (young swans) have dusky brown plumage with a gray-black bill.

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Mute Swan in Cape May, NJ (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

Mute Swans are not native to North America, they are from Europe and Asia. They were introduced by Europeans in the late 19th century as an ornamental addition to estates and parks. A feral population formed and has spread throughout the Northeast,Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest regions of the county.

Habitat:

Both fresh and saltwater ponds, lakes, lagoons, and bays. May closely associate with humans.

Diet:

Mainly aquatic vegetation, but also grasses, insects, small fish, snails, and frogs. They forage by dabbling, where they will submerge all their body except for their tail to reach food. They have huge appetites: Mute Swans can eat up to 8 pounds a day in aquatic vegetation. Many scientists consider them a nuisance because their enormous appetites put them in competition for food against native species and can degrade the environment.

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Foraging Mute Swans (Image by BirdNation)

Breeding/Nesting:

Mute Swans form pairs around the age of 2, and mate with the same partner for life. Courtship behavior includes facing each other which moving their heads in unison. When arriving at the breeding site, they will slapping their feet again the water to ward away intruders and announce their presence. Pairs will usually use the same nest site each year. Mute Swans are very territorial of their nest site. Their threat display is to arch their wings over their backs and fluff out their feathers.

Mute Swans have 1 brood per year with 5-7 eggs in a clutch, sometimes up to 10. The female will mainly incubate the eggs for about 36 days. The male will incubate the eggs while the female is out foraging. The pair’s nest is found on the shoreline in a small mound of plant material. Once the eggs hatch, both parents will tend to the cygnets, who they will usually carry on their backs. Mute cygnets come in one of two morphs (plumage variations): gray or white. The cygnets will fledge after 4-5 months, but usually remain with their family through the first winter.

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Mute Swan giving her cygnets a ride (Image via buzzle.com)

Sounds:

Mute Swans are not actually mute, but they are quieter than North America’s native swans. Their voice is hoarse, and have a variety of calls; such as hissing, grunting, or a “bugle” sounding call. Their wingbeats are so loud that they can be heard from a mile away.

Conservation:

Mute Swan populations can have a negative impact on native species, such as Black Skimmers, Black Terns, and Least Terns. Due to their “invasive” nature, there have been efforts by habitat managers to control feral swan populations. In 2005, the Department of the Interior officially named them non-native and stripping them of their protection from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, although some local state laws protect them. Despite the controversial efforts, populations have been increasing over the years.

Fun Facts:

  • Use caution when around Mute Swans, especially if you are nearby their nesting area or cygnets. They can be very aggressive and have been known to attack kayakers, canoes, and pedestrians who they feel are too close.
  • The two native North American swan species are the Tundra Swan and the Trumpeter Swan.
  • It’s very difficult to tell the difference between a male and female, but during breeding season the black base of the male’s bill will swell up to be larger than the female’s.

 

A Rare Experience

January 6, 2017 will now always be a memorable day for me. Today was the day that I saw my first “rare” bird.

Since the beginning of the new year, there have been reports on the E-bird NJ Rare Bird Alert that an American White Pelican was at Stanley H. “Tips” Seaman Park in Tuckerton, NJ. In the winter, eastern American White Pelicans are usually found off the coast of Florida or the Gulf of Mexico, so this bird was pretty far from home. People on various bird groups on Facebook have been sharing pictures of the pelican floating around on Pohatcong Lake at “Tips” Seaman, so naturally I wanted to see it in person.

Tuckerton is in Ocean County, New Jersey, which is the county that I grew up in. My family doesn’t live in near Tuckerton anymore, but my mom, sister, and I had plans around that area today, so we though we should seek out the pelican. This isn’t the first time I’ve looked for on the rare birds from e-bird. In June Dave and I tried to find some Dickcissels nearby but didn’t see them (we did find some other great birds that day, though.) However, I had a good feeling about this pelican.

We arrived at Tip Seaman mid-morning. As we walked across the snowy field towards Pohatcong Lake we saw a large white bird in the distance preening. Could it be?? We made our way up closer. It was….a Mute Swan.

The Mute Swan preened close to the shoreline, surrounded by some Canada Geese and a small flock of Ring-billed Gulls. I scanned out in the distance. A lot of pictures posted online showed the pelican out across the lake by the tree. The Pelican was usually seen with 2 Mute Swans.

And then he appeared! He came from our right, calmly floating along. He wasn’t too far out. He was swimming with a flock of Canada Geese. My excitement grew. There he was! Another birder was standing near us, and we started talking about how amazing he was. She lived nearby and heard about the pelican on Facebook too.

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American White Pelican with Canada Geese (Image by BirdNation)

It seems like Mr. Pelican had started to get used to having an audience, because he noticed the four of us standing on the shore and started swimming in our direction. Before we knew it, he was floating not far from the shoreline, in perfect view.

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Beautiful Mr. Pelican (Image by BirdNation)

He was absolutely magnificent. His beautiful white plumage ruffled in the wind and he calmly floated around the lake. His large yellowish-orange bill was striking against his pure white body. We watched him preen for a bit and he showed of every once in a while by flapping his huge wings. When he flapped we were able to see the large black patches on his underwing.

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Preening (Image by BirdNation)

There were other birds on the pond, but he seemed to be in the center of it all. Mallards dabbled near the shoreline, Ring-billed Gulls squeaked to each other, and Canada Geese flew in from the air. But in the center of all the activity sat Mr. Pelican, surround by this two friends, the Mute Swans.

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Mr. Pelican in the midst of the action (Image by BirdNation)

One fantastic thing about birding is meeting other bird lovers in the field. We ended up talking to our new birding friend who watched Mr. Pelican with us. We wondered about the pelican’s journey and how he ended up in Tuckerton instead of Florida. Did he have a mate? Did he get lost? He must have an interesting story. We shared birding locations and some of the interesting birds we’ve seen so far. It’s always fun to meet other passionate birders. We also couldn’t believe our luck that he came so close to the shore, almost like he was posing for his admirers.

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Mr. Pelican poses for the camera (Image by BirdNation)

We watched him for about 25 minutes. Even though he was technically “out of place”, the pelican seemed pretty comfortable with his new waterfowl friends. So comfortable in fact, that after awhile he contently stuffed in bill into his feathers to take a nap. We decided to let him rest, so we all said goodbye to Mr. Pelican and headed back to our cars.

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Sleepy Pelican (Image by BirdNation)

What a thrill the whole experience was. I’m not sure how long Mr. Pelican will stay in New Jersey, but I hope he enjoys his visit. I’m thankful that we were able to spend time with this amazing bird.

Have you experience a “rare” bird? Tell me your rare bird stories in the comments. 

 

 

 

 

Hooded Merganser: Waterfowl Wednesday

When Dave and I went to Cape May in December, we saw a variety of waterfowl. Even with our binoculars, some of the birds were really far out so a few were hard to see. I was at home reviewing the pictures, and zoomed in on a picture of Bufflehead. But as I looked closer I realized “wait…those aren’t Bufflehead, they’re Hooded Mergansers!” . They blended in so well that I didn’t even realize I saw them on the trip until I got home. It’s always fun to find a little surprise like that, so today I’m featuring them as this week’s waterfowl.

Today’s post is dedicated to my mom because she suggested I write about mergansers (and we happen to have an inside joke about them lol).

Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)

Description:

Hooded Mergansers are the smallest of the 3 North American merganser species. ” Hoodies” have longs bodies, slender bills, and round tails. They are sexually dimorphic, so males and females have distinct plumage. Males have chestnut flanks, white underparts, and black upperparts. The males have a large, prominent white patch on the head that varies in size when its crest is raised or lowered. Females and juveniles are a dull gray-brown with a cinnamon-colored crest. Juveniles differ from females because or their dark bills (as opposed to the female’s yellow) and yellow eyes (female’s eyes are dark).

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Female and Male Hooded Mergansers (Image by Glenn Barley via birdzilla.com)

Range: 

Year-round: Northwest and Eastern United States Summers (breeding): Central to Eastern Canada; Great Lakes region of  the United States Winter: parts of the Western United States, parts of the Southeast, and Florida

Habitat:

Open water; wooded ponds, tidal creeks, marshes, swamps

Diet:

Fish, aquatic insects, vegetation, crustaceans, amphibians, and mollusks. Hoodies have a broader diet than other mergansers, who mainly eat fish. They dive underwater to find prey, which they catch by sight. The have nictitating membrance (a.k.a “third eyelid”) that protects their eyes while they hunt underwater.

Breeding/Nesting:

Hoodies court in large groups that typically consist of one female and many males. Male will put on a elaborate “head-throwing” display, where they toss their heads back with their crest raise while croaking. Females respond with head bobbing and a hoarse gack croak. Hooded Mergansers nest in tree cavities that the females line with down.They may also use nest boxes. Once the females lays her 10-12 eggs the male abandons her. It’s not known if pairs reunite the following year.

A male Hooded Merganser displaying for a female
A male demonstrate the “head throwing” display

A female will incubate her eggs for 26-41 days, but typically around 33. It’s common for a female to lay some of her eggs in another merganser’s nest, which is an example of brood parasitismThe ducklings will leave the nest within 24 hours after hatching. They are called by the female from below the tree and the duckling will “sky-dive” down to her. The chicks are able to dive shallowly and feed themselves, but the female will tend to them for several weeks. The ducklings fledge about 70 days after leaving the nest.

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A female with her chicks (Image by Steward Oikawa via allaboutbirds.org)

Sounds:

Usually silent, except for during courtship. Males have a purr-like croak, sometimes being nicknames the “frog duck”. Females give a gack during courtship and sometimes a soft wrrep. In flight or when calling her chicks the female will use croo-croo-crook 

Conservation:

It’s thought that Hoodies have the smallest number of the 3 North American mergansers. Numbers have declined over the decades due to habitat loss. However, the population has slowly increasing, partly due to artifical nest boxes that are meant for Wood Ducks.

Fun Facts:

  • The female begins incubating her eggs after the last one is laid, therefore allowing for synchronous hatching. 
  • Hoodies are the second smallest merganser of the 6 merganser species in the world. The smallest is the Smew.
  • To protect the eggs or chicks, a female may use the “broken-wing” display to distract predators (similiar to the Killdeer).
  • Females only lay up to 13 eggs per brood, but due to brood parsitism (females laying eggs in each other’s nests), there have been nests found with up to 44 eggs in them!