March Vacation Part 1: Blackwater NWR

Dave and I are on a weekend get-away to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. On the way to Virginia, we stopped at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland.

Blackwater NWR is more than 28,000 acres of tidal marsh and mixed loblolly pine and hardwood forests located along the Atlantic Flyway. The refuge features a 4.5 mile wildlife drive as well 4 walking trails. Blackwater NWR has one of the highest concentrations of nesting Bald Eagles on the Atlantic Coast.

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Blackwater River (Image by BirdNation)

The first bird that we saw upon arriving into the refuge was an adult Bald Eagle. By the end of the afternoon we ended up seeing 10 eagles. We saw a mix of adults and juveniles. Bald Eagles don’t fully gain their adult plumage of white heads/tails until they are 5-years-old.

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Juvenile Bald Eagle (Image by BirdNation)

There were still many large flocks on wintering waterfowl. Hundreds of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese gathered together in the pools behind and next to the visitor’s center. Northern Shovelers were also very abundant. Other waterfowl included Gadwalls, American Wigeons, Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. Interspersed between the waterfowl were small groups of American Coots. Although they look duck-like, American Coots are not closely related to ducks. They are more closely related to rails.

 

We spent some time walking along the Woods Trail which consists of pine and mixed hardwood trees. This area is prime habitat for the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. Along the trail we saw Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Brown Creepers, a Carolina Wren, and a Hermit Thrush.

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Hermit Thrush (Image by BirdNation)

Other birds observed included Great Blue Herons, Greater Yellowlegs, Red-winged Blackbirds, an Eastern Bluebird, Ring-billed Gulls, Red-tailed Hawks, and Tree Swallows.

After spending a lovely morning at Blackwater NWR, we made our way to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. After checking into our hotel, found Veteran’s Memorial Park (on eBird as Chincoteague Memorial Park.). From the park we could see Assateague Lighthouse across the water as well as about 8 of the famous wild ponies. At Memorial Park we saw Bufflehead, American Oystercatchers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Vultures, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Loons, various gulls, and a bunch of Turkey Vultures sunbathing on a house.

Tomorrow we plan on exploring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. I’m looking forward to see what we discover!

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Assateague Lighthouse across the water (Image by BirdNation)

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.

 

Backyard Bird Count ’18: Lakes Edition

2018 is was our 4th year of participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. What an interesting weekend it was!

Unfortunately, Day 1 (2/16) ended up being a washout. It was a miserable, dark, rainy day. Here is what we saw on Day 1 last year. 

Thankfully the Sun made an appearance for a little while on Day 2 (2/17) . The temperature was around 40, so we ended up birding at two lakes. First up was Smithville Lake in Eastampton.

Every January/February we end up seeing Common Mergansers at Smithville Lake. I was hoping to see them again, but they weren’t around. It was pretty quiet, but we did see a few species. In total we saw 7 species and 22 individual birds. They were:

  • 4 Mallards
  • 3 Black Vultures
  • 3 Turkey Vultures
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • 3 American Crows
  • 2 Carolina Chickadees
  • 6 White-throated Sparrows
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Winter at Smithville Lake (Image by BirdNation)

Our second stop was Haddon Lake Park in Mt. Ephraim. Upon arriving at the park, we were greeted by the leader of the welcoming committee:

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Canada Goose (Image by BirdNation)

Clearly he wanted food, but I certainly wasn’t going to feed him (Quick PSA: don’t feed the waterfowl!). We continued on our way to find more Canada Geese, Mallards, and Ring-billed Gulls. We also spotted some of the “strange ducks”, like the hybrid below, who seems to be a mix of a Mallard and one of the white domestic ducks.

 

Haddon Lake is a GBBC tradition for us. Now that we’ve been participating for multiple years, we can compare what we’ve observed this year to the past. Two species that we saw this year for the count but not past years were the Northern Mockingbird and Double-crested Cormorant. We had the opportunity to watch the cormorant climb out of the water and dry its wings off for a few minutes. Surprisingly, for a bird who’s livelihood is diving for fish, the Double-crested Cormorant’s feathers are not waterproof. Therefore, you’ll commonly see these birds fanning out their wings to dry. I took a video the cormorant preening.

We weren’t the only ones taking a stroll around the lake. It turns out that we were being followed around the whole lake by…

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Canada Goose follower (Image by BirdNation)

The Canada Goose from the welcoming committee.  It was the first time I’ve had a Canada Goose participate in my bird count walk haha! :-p

Haddon Lake Park count (8 species, 233 individuals):

  • 130 Canada Geese
  • 90 Mallards
  • 1 Double-crested Cormorant
  • 7 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 1 Northern Mockingbird
  • 1 Song Sparrow
  • 1 Common Grackle

Overall our total count for Day 2 was 14 different species and 255 individual birds. Check our what we saw on Day 2 last year here).

Stay tuned for Part 2!

 

 

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.

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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).

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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.
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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

Gadwall Wednesday

Today’s waterfowl of the week is the Gadwall. This duck may not be as colorful in appearance as other ducks, but Gadwalls have a simple elegance that makes them hard to ignore.

Gadwall (Anas strepera)

Description:

  • Roughly the same size as Mallards
  • Squarish heads with high foreheads
  • White secondary feathers sometimes visible
  • Males: Gray-brown with black tail patch and silver tertial feathers (innermost flight feathers to the wing), black bill 
  • Females: Brown and buffy, orange bill with black spot
  • Juveniles: Gray-brown, plain face, thin black bill with orange sides
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Gadwalls, male (front) and female (rear) (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

  • Resident: Mid-Atlantic Coast, Pacific Coast, Pacific Northwest, Great Plains region
  • Breeding: Upper Great Plains, Great Lakes, parts of Central Canada
  • Winter: Southern regions of United States, Mexico
  • Migration: Medium-distance migrant. Northeastern United States, Midwest region, Ontario, nothern parts of Quebec and Newfoundland

Habitat:

freshwater or alkali lakes, coastal marshes, estuaries, inter-mountain valleys

Diet:

Aquatic vegetation, mollusks, crustaceans, invertebrates, insects. Forages by dabbling or taking food off the water’s surface. Will sometimes scavenge and steal food from other birds, especially American Coots.

Breeding/Nesting:

  • Courtship: Occurs in the fall and pair bonds are monogamous during breeding season. Displays included showing off white patches by making head and tips of tail meet, rearing up with bill in water while whistling. Pairs will face each other and bob heads or hide their bill under the wing as if preening.
  • Nesting Site: A shallow depression about 200 yards from open water in grasses/brush or on small islands.
  • Young: Females incubate 8-11 eggs for about 3 weeks. Chick are precocial so they quickly leave the nest, and are tended to by the mother but can feed themselves. First flight occur around 50 days after hatching.

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Gadwall Nest By USFWS Mountain-Prairie; Credit: Char Binstock / USFWS (2012) (Flickr: Gadwall Nest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Vocalizations:

Females quack similarly to Mallards, though they sound more nasally and higher-pitched. Males give a deep call during flight that is referred to as a “burp”.

Conservation:

Gadwall populations have actually increased over the years due to conservation programs.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes females will act as brood parasites and lay their eggs in another female’s nest.
  • Gadwalls are the third most hunted duck in North America (after Mallard and Green-winged Teal respectively)
  • Gadwalls also breeding in parts of Asia and northern Europe.
  • Females will consume more invertebrates than males do to get more protein while laying her eggs. She will lay one egg each day until she completes the brood.

American Wigeon: Waterfowl Wednesday

It’s one of the best times of the year again: waterfowl season! And you know what means…the Waterfowl Wednesday feature is back for its 3rd winter!

Today we took our first winter trip down to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR and saw a plethora of waterfowl (13 species to be exact). One of these species was the lovely American Wigeon.

American Wigeon (Anas americana)

Description:

  • Male Alternate Plumage (breeding): Pinkish-brown body, white forehead, green patch from eye to nape, white rear flanks, green speculum, black undertail coverts, gray cheeks/chin, white patch on upper wing, gray slightly down-turned bill with black tip
  • Male Basic Plumage: (eclipse)Variable amounts of green and white on heads, and some white on undertail coverts (usually black)
  • Female: Reddish-brown body, mainly gray heads with dusky/white streaks, gray slightly down-turned bill with black tip
  • Immature: Very similar to female plumage, gets black tip on gray bill as it gets older
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American Wigeon male (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

  • Breeding: Canada and Northwestern United States
  • Resident: Parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and Colorado
  • Winter: Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, southern half of United States, Mexico
  • Migration: New England and Midwestern regions of United States

Habitat:

freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, bays, fields, lakes, coastal estuaries

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Breeding male American Wigeon (Image by David Horowitz)

Diet:

Mainly aquatic plants, mollusks, some insects, seeds. Forages day or night on land or in shallow water by submerging head. Sometimes steals prey from diving ducks in deeper waters.

Breeding/Nesting:

  • Courtship: jumping out of water, head-turning, wing-flapping, wagging tail. Several males court a single female, with pairs forming on wintering grounds.
  • Nesting Site: Dry land away from water. Uses a small depression on the ground lined with grasses and down feathers. Conceals nest with vegetation
  • Young: Female incubates 5-12 whitish eggs for about 3 weeks. Males tend to leave before the eggs hatch. Chicks are precocial, they leave the nest shortly after hatching and can feed themselves. The female will tend to the young until their first flights, which can be between 45-63 days after hatching.

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Female Wigeon By Mdf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Vocalizations:

Males whistle whew-whew-whew! Females give a low harsh quack or rred growl

Conservation: 

Although populations have risen and fallen over the years, American Wigeons are considered stable. Their breeding range has slowly been extending eastward. They are widely hunted during fall hunting season.

Fun Facts:

  • American Wigeons spend more time in deep water than other marsh ducks.
  • The male’s white forehead has given these ducks the nickname “Baldpate”.
  • American Wigeons have been known to hybridize with the Eurasian Wigeon, a rare visitor to North America. Breeding male Eurasian Wigeons are distinct from Americans because of their dark rufous heads. Female Eurasians have a brown head. Juvenile Americans and Eurasians look almost completely alike, however, Americans have white underwings and Eurasians have gray underwings.
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Male American (left) and Eurasian (right) Wigeons (Image via pinterest)