4 the Waterfowl

On Sunday January 27, Dave and I went to 4 birding locations in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. I was inspired to find some Canvasbacks, so we drove out to the Jersey Shore to see what we could find. Overall, we saw 15 different waterfowl species between the 4 locations. Here are the highlights.

Manasquan Reservoir IBA, Howell, NJ

This was around the time of the polar vortex, so it was pretty cold and most of the reservoir was frozen over. Despite the cold, we observed 20 species.

  • Waterfowl: Canvasbacks (life list #2 for 2019, read about life list #1, the Razorbill, here), huge flocks of Common Mergansers and Canada Geese, Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead, Ring-billed Ducks, female Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Ducks, Mallards, Mute Swans
  • Others: 3 Bald Eagles (breeding pair and juvenile), watched an adult and juvenile eating prey on the ice. American Coots, gulls.
Ice Skating Canada Geese (Video by BirdNation)

Common Goldeneye female in flight (Image by BirdNation)

Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area, Manasquan, NJ

  • Waterfowl: Brants, Red-breasted Mergansers, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Duck
  • Other: Turkey Vultures, tons of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, Common Loons

Manasquan Inlet, Manasquan, NJ

Manasquan Inlet is where the Manasquan River meets the Atlantic Ocean. There were a lot of Common Loons that day, and we learned after we got home that there was a Pacific Loon among them, a NJ rarity. I didn’t think to pay close attention to each individual loon since I just assumed they were our normal Common Loons. Lesson learned!

  • Waterfowl: Long-tailed Ducks
  • Other: Common Loons, Rock Pigeons, Ring-billed Gulls, Dunlin
Common Loon (Image by BirdNation)

Lake of the Lilies, Pt. Pleasant, NJ

Our first visit to Lake of the Lilies was last year for the Great Backyard Bird Count. We saw 13 species of waterfowl that day in February, including a large raft of Redheads and a rare Tufted Duck. This visit was quieter, but we got an amazing views of some Wood Ducks.

  • Waterfowl: Wood Ducks, 1 Redhead, Mallards/domestic/hybrid Mallards, Canada Geese, Bufflehead, Hooded Mergansers
  • Others: American Coots, gulls, Great Blue Heron
Wood Duck male (Image by BirdNation)
Wood Duck female and male (Image by BirdNation)

Surf Scoter: Waterfowl Wednesday

We are almost a month into winter, so I thought it would a great time for a Waterfowl Wednesday post. If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know that I love waterfowl, and winter is the best time to look for different species. For new readers, waterfowl is any bird that is a duck, goose, or swan. So without further ado, today’s featured species is Surf Scoter.

Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)

Description:

  • Black-and white, medium-sized sea duck
  • Has no white on wings
  • Wedge shaped heads
  • Males: distinct swollen bill of orange, white, red, yellow, and a dark black spot. Yellowish-white or blue-gray eyes. Red-orange feet with dusky webs. White patches on nape of neck and forehead.
  • Females: Dark crown on head and neck. White patches below and behind eyes. Plain, sloping greenish-black bill. Pale gray, yellow, or brown eyes. Brown to yellow-colored feet with black webs.
  • Juvenile: Similar to female, but has brown eyes, white belly and whiter face patches
Male Surf Scoter (Image by BirdNation)
Female Surf Scoter (Image by BirdNation)

Range

  • Breeding: exclusively breeds in North America, specifically Alaska and Northern Canada
  • Winter: Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, sometimes Gulf Coast
  • Migration: Migrates in flocks over coastal waters, sometimes using lakes for stop-over sites. Migrates through parts of Canada, the Great Lakes, and some New England and Mid-Atlantic States.

Habitat

In winter, oceans and salt bays. In summer, tundra, lakes, and semi-open terrains.

Diet

Mainly mollusks, aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, aquatic insects, some plant material. Surf Scoters are diving ducks. 

Breeding/Nesting

  • Courtship: Many males will try to impress a female using display flights, swimming back and forth with neck up, or exaggerated bows. Pair bonds form on wintering grounds.
  • Nesting: Shallow depression on the ground away from water, usually well hidden.
  • Young: Female incubates 5-9 eggs and tends to the chicks after hatching. Chicks are precocial, meaning they leave the nest shortly after hatching and can feed themselves.
Female and male Surf Scoters at Barnegat Light, NJ (Image by BirdNation)

Vocalizations

Usually silent, but sometimes guttural croaking. Wings in flight make a whistling sound.

Conservation

Population trends are not well known, but are mostly stable.

Fun Facts

  • Egg hatching is synchronous among eggs, meaning they will all hatched around the same time.
  • Similar species to the Surf Scoter are Black Scoters and White-winged Scoters. However, Surf Scoters can be distinguish from other scoter species by their unique bills, white patches on the head, and completely black wings.
  • Flocks can vary in size from 2 to 500 individuals, but can be larger during migration. Surf Scoters frequently flock with Black Scoters, but most other species of ducks can be found among Surf Scoters. They tend to fly in disorganized lines that are constantly fluctuating.

Duck-mas Eve

Last year we had a Snowy Christmas Eve….Snowy Owl that is.

Snowy Owl 12/24/17 (Image by David Horowitz)

We went back to Long Beach Island today…no Snowies. Instead we celebrated Duck-mas Eve! All the waterfowl attended…

Surf Scoters,

Harlequin Ducks,

Long-tailed Ducks,

Black Scoters,

Brants,

And Common Eiders of all plumage types. There were breeding males, females, and juveniles.

There was even a Common Eider parade.

A Snowy Owl Christmas Eve is great, but Duck-mas Eve is just as awesome! Merry Duck-mas!

Chincoteague Waterfowl Weekend

We are on Thanksgiving break, so Dave and I took a one-day getaway to Chincoteague, VA. Thanksgiving weekend is Waterfowl Weekend at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Being a waterfowl enthusiast, I thought it was a perfect time to head down to Virginia’s Eastern Shore to seek out winter visitors. (We went to Chincoteague for our honeymoon in March, check out that trip here).

Tom’s Cove Beach Highlights

  • Snow Geese! Over a thousand of them! The longer we watched the flock, the more Snow Geese arrived. They circled above us as they joined the huge flock resting on the beach. Mixed within the sea of white were “blue morphs”, a color variation of the Snow Goose. Individuals will mate for life, choosing the same color morph as their family members. Two white morphs will have white offspring, a pure dark with a white morph will likely have dark morphs (sometimes with white bellies), and two blue morphs will likely have blue offspring, although white offspring are possible. Dave spotted two individual with bands, one in which he got a clear picture of.

Snow Goose Parade (Image by BirdNation)

 

 

Snow Geese soaring overhead (Image by David Horowitz)

  • Shorebirds: Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlins, Sanderlings, Willets, and Yellowlegs

  • Lots of Gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed), Common and Red-bellied Loons, Surf and White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Bufflehead, Forster’s Terns. 

Extended Wildlife Loop Highlights

Chincoteague NWR has a 3.2 mile wildlife loop for walking, bicycling, and driving. For Waterfowl Weekend, the refuge opens up a 7.5 mile service (15 miles round trip) road to extend the drive. I’ll admit it was a little strange at first because it just seemed like a road with dead trees. However, further down the trail there were pools and dikes with many birds. 

  • American White Pelicans!: We saw 2 American White Pelicans floating and flying over a pool. It was Dave’s first White Pelicans (I saw my first in NJ, read about the awesome experience with Mr. Pelican  here). I discovered while entering my checklist on e-Bird that the pelicans were considered rare in our location, so we were lucky enough to have some “rare” birds on this trip. At this time of year American White Pelicans are usually in Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mexico, or parts of California.  
American White Pelicans (Image by BirdNation)
  • Yellow-rumped Warblers, more Bufflehead, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, White-breasted Nuthatch, Snowy and Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles 
  • And of course, the famous Chincoteague Wild Ponies. In March we had a cool experience of the wild ponies parading past our vehicle. There were a lot more visitors this time, so the ponies caused quite a spectacle (and traffic!). We again had a pretty “up close and personal” encounter with the ponies, although I don’t think the actually realized how close they came to our car. They were too busy just being wild ponies to notice how close they were.
Chincoteague Wild Ponies cause a commotion 

I’m so thankful that we had the time to head down for a fun-filled day at Chincoteague NWR. There’s always something amazing to see on Chincoteague Island. 

GBBC ’18 Part 2: A Rare Surprise

Today’s post is Part 2 of the 2018 Great Backyard Bird Count. You can read about Day 1 here.

We spent the last half of the bird count weekend at the Jersey Shore. For the last few weeks, many birders on some of the Facebook groups I’m a member of have been posting about Redhead ducks. A large flock of these ducks, as well as other waterfowl, have been observed at Lake of the Lilies in Pt. Pleasant, NJ. We’ve never seen Redheads before, so we thought it would be fun to check out this new location.

The first thing I noticed about Lake of the Lilies is that it’s relatively small. It’s also a little unusual because it’s surrounded on all sides by beach houses. I heard the Redheads tend to show up every winter, but with such a small lake I wasn’t sure what else would be around.

What a treasure trove! We observed 13 different waterfowl species. There were Mallards, Gadwalls, Greater Scaups, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Buffleheads, an American Wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, and as we expected, a large raft of Redheads. All these different species congregated together to sleep, preen, feed, and float around the lake. We even had a chance to see two Horned Grebes and tons of American Coots. Lake of the Lilies is a lovely little gem. I was so satisfied watching all the waterfowl together. Mission accomplished.

We started head back around the lake to our car when a van stopped. The man in the van yelled out, ” Hi! Did you see the Tufted Duck? My friend told me that there’s a Tufted Duck hanging around here. Supposedly it’s pretty rare!”

No, we have not seen the Tufted Duck. We actually didn’t even know one was there. So we thanked the man  and turned around (obviously lol!) to search for the Tufted Duck. We scanned the lake. Tufted Ducks look very similar to Great Scaups, and as their name suggests, they have a tuft of feathers sticking out from the back of their heads. By this point, most of the duck had their heads tucked in to sleep. I did see one duck with some feathers sticking out, but wasn’t sure if that was the bird. I took some more pictures and after awhile we went on our way.

It turns out that after we left a large number of birders arrived at Lake of the Lilies to find the Tufted Duck. Many people posted the duck on Facebook. I scanned through all the photos I took and checked every single duck. Only one duck looked suspect with some feathers sticking out, so I asked my Facebook group. It was confirmed: we saw the Tufted Duck!

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Sleepy Tufted Duck (Image by BirdNation)

Tufted Ducks are from Eurasia, so finding one here in America is pretty rare. We didn’t expected to find a rare bird during the count, but we ended up nabbing our first ever Eurasian rarity!

Here’s our count from Lake of the Lilies (17 species, 305 individuals):

  • 45 Canada Geese
  • 3 Mute Swans
  • 5 Northern Shovelers
  • 4 Gadwall
  • 1 American Wigeon
  • 84 Mallards
  • 45 Redheads
  • 4 Ring-necked Ducks
  • 1 Tufted Duck
  • 35 Greater Scaup
  • 3 Bufflehead
  • 6 Hooded Mergansers
  • 22 Ruddy Ducks
  • 2 Horned Grebes
  • 30 American Coots
  • 10 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 5 Rock Pigeons

Our final park of the day was Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area. We didn’t stay too long, but did see 14 species and 233 individuals.

  • 100 Brant
  • 2 Long-tailed Ducks
  • 2 Mallards
  • 42 American Black Ducks
  • 8 Bufflehead
  • 1 Horned Grebe
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 3 Great Blue Herons
  • 3 Turkey Vultures
  • 24 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 37 Herring Gulls
  • 5 American Crows
  • 3 White-throated Sparrow
  • 2 Song Sparrows

Here’s what we saw last year on Day 3. We were not able to participate on Day 4 this year, so you can read about 2017’s Day 4 here.


In the 2 days that we were able to participate this year, we saw 33 different species and 793 individual birds. Two of our species were life-list birds. It will certainly be a Great Backyard Bird Count to remember.

 

Strange Ducks

Imagine you are at your local pond and all the ducks are out and about. You scan through a flock of Mallards with your binoculars.

Mallard…mallard…mallard…wait, what is that?

You spot a duck that looks…strange. It kind of looks like a Mallard, but something is not quite right. It’s possible that you found a hybrid.

Hybridization is common in birds, but especially so in waterfowl. When two birds of different species mate they can produce a hybrid offspring. The hybrids will usually display characteristics of both parents to some degree. Two of the most common hybridizing species in North American waterfowl are the Mallard and Wood Duck. In fact, scientists have identified around 400 different waterfowl hybrid combinations.

In general, many hybrid offspring are infertile. This is not always the case. Sometimes a hybrid can reproduce, but usually with not as much success as a pure-breed duck. This may occur in species that are more closely related in the same genus. The more evolutionary distant two species are, the more likely their hybrid will have low fitness (relative success of an individual in passing along their genes) or be sterile. Female hybrids are more likely to be inviable than males, due to the fact that sames have two different sex chromosomes and males have two of the same sex chromosomes (the opposite of mammals).

Hybrids actually tend to be rarer than people think. This is because there are many barriers to reproduction between unique waterfowl species. Examples of these barriers include songs/calls, habitat preference, physical attributes, and courtship behaviors. However, when everyone arrives at the breeding grounds and all those hormones get going, well….just about anything can happen.

It’s pretty interesting seeing a hybrid duck. It’s fun to try and figure out what species the parents were. Although interesting, unfortunately sometimes hybridization can lead to a decline in population of a species. Let’s use our Mallards again as an example. Over time, habitat changes in some duck species has led to Mallards expanding their range. In the case of the American Black Duck, their shrinking range has been encroached by Mallards and since these species interact more often,  they result in more American Black Duck x Mallard hybrids. Species threatened by Mallards also include the Mottled Duck of Florida and the Hawaiian Duck.

hybrid duck 1
American Black Duck x Mallard Hybrid (Image by BirdNation)

Other common duck hybrids include Mallard x Northern Pintail, Gadwall x American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon x American Wigeon, and Wood Duck x Mallard.

There’s also the good possibility that the odd duck you saw at the pond could be a domestic duck. It’s not uncommon to find domestic ducks mixed into the waterfowl flock. If a strange duck seems comfortable with/approaches people or has large white patches where you don’t expect it, then it is most likely a domestic duck. We have seen plenty of these domestic ducks at Haddon Lake over the years.

 

And last but not least, my favorite: Puff Duck ( aka “Puffy”, R.I.P. You can read his story, “The Tale of the Three Amigos”, here).

puff duck and friend 1
Puff Duck and friend (Image by BirdNation)

Keep an eye out for strange ducks! Happy duck watching!

The Whistler

Sorry I missed Waterfowl Wednesday this week! It was my first night of my Bio 2 Lab, so I didn’t get home until late. To make up for it, I wanted to share some facts about my newest life list addition, the Common Goldeneye.

  • Hunters sometimes refer to the Common Goldeneye as the “whistler”. Goldeneyes are rapid flyers, so their wings make a whistling sound when they fly away. They can reach speeds of around 40 mph in flight.
  • Common Goldeneyes are part of the genus Bucephala, which is derived from the Greek word boukephalos, meaning “bull-headed”. The other two living species of this genus are the Barrow’s Goldeneye and the Bufflehead.
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Common Goldeneye female and male (Image via pinterest)
  • Goldeneyes have up to 14 different movements that they can use during courtship displays. One common display is when the male stretches out his neck, suddenly whips it back over his body, and kicks his feet up to cause a splash while making a two-note call. Many males will try to court a single female. (I recommend searching “common goldeneye courtship” on Youtube and watching some of the cool display videos).
  • Common Goldeneyes sometimes act as brood parasites  and lay their eggs in another Goldeneye’s nest, particularly when nest sites are in short supply.
  • Like Wood Ducks, Goldeneye females lay their eggs high up in tree cavities. They commonly use Pileated Woodpecker holes, but will use artificial nest sites if readily available. Chicks will leave the nest cavity one day after hatching. They have quite a fall to endure: some Goldeneye cavities can be as high as 60 feet from the ground!
  • During breeding season, Common Goldeneyes are found in the taiga through Alaska and Canada. They spend the winter throughout a majority of the “lower 48” of the United States.
  • The Common Goldeneyes are obviously named for their gold-colored eye, however their eyes change colors many times before adulthood. All chicks are born with gray-brown eyes. By five months of age, their eyes will have transitioned from purple-blue, to blue, to green-blue, to pale green-yellow. Males will have their eyes change to golden by adulthood, while females will have a range from yellow to white.
Bucephala_clangula_male
The Beautiful Golden Eye By Francis C. Franklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons