An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Waterfowl

Waterfowl In Eclipse Plumage

9-9-16-revised-wood-duck-eclipse-20160904_3910Most ducks shed their body feathers twice each year. Nearly all drakes lose their bright plumage after mating, and for a few weeks resemble females. This hen-like appearance is called the eclipse plumage and provides drakes with the ability to camouflage themselves. The necessity for waterfowl not to be seen by predators at this time is great, for this is when ducks undergo a “simultaneous” wing molt – losing all their wing feathers at the same time. It takes a month or so to replace these feathers, and during this time they are completely flightless. As soon as drakes can fly again in late summer, they begin a second molt and gradually develop their breeding plumage as fall progresses.

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Hooded Mergansers Returning To Nest

3-25-16  hooded merganser flying 243

Hooded mergansers are present in most of the Northeast year round where there is open water, but many move south and southwest in winter.  Some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Their numbers swell in March and April, when migrants are passing through as well as returning.  Often within days of when the ice goes out, this smallest (and arguably the most beautiful) of the three North American merganser species appears.

The courtship ritual of hooded mergansers takes place in groups of one or more females and several males.  The males raise their crests, expanding the white patch, and engage in behavior known as head-throwing.  They jerk their heads backwards until it touches their backs, while giving a frog-like croak. Females court by bobbing their heads and giving a hoarse quack.

Female breeding hooded mergansers select suitable cavities in both live and dead trees in which to nest. Stumps and snags near or in forested wetlands are their preferred nesting sites. Nest boxes are also used by this species, with those over or near water being the most sought after. After a month or a little more, the eggs hatch and downy, day-old chicks jump to the water (or ground) below, in response to their mother’s vocal urging.

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Buffleheads Migrating

bufflehead2  270There is so much to love about Buffleheads.  First and foremost, they are almost exclusively monogamous – one of the few ducks that often keeps the same mate for several years. They are relatively tiny – our smallest “diving” duck. (Ducks are divided into “diving” and “dabbling” ducks, according to their method of feeding.)  So small are they that these cavity-nesting birds can fit in and often choose Northern Flicker holes in which to raise their young. We typically only see them during their nocturnal spring and fall migration to and from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of western Canada and Alaska, when they rest and refuel on ponds and lakes during the day. If you chance upon a pair when the sun is out, be sure to notice the striking purple and green iridescent head feathers of the male (on right).

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Carrion a Vital Food Source for Bald Eagles

3-1-16 eagle3 036Eagles obtain food mainly in three ways — by direct capture, scavenging for carrion and stealing food from other birds and mammals. When securing their own live prey, they hunt from perches or soar over suitable habitat, taking most prey on the wing. Bald eagles’ preferred food is live fish, but they are opportunistic foragers that select prey based on availability. Twenty studies from across their range found that the composition of bald eagle diets averaged the following: fish-56%; birds-28%; mammals-14%; and other 2%.

In addition to capturing live prey, eagles rely heavily on fish, bird and mammal carrion, especially during the winter. Ice fishermen’s leftover bait and/or rejected catches, roadkills and deer that have slipped and died on ice-covered ponds and lakes are three heavily-used sources of food at this time of year. If the carrion is small enough, it is often carried to a perch (see opossum in photo) where it is inconspicuously consumed. Larger carrion, such as white-tailed deer, salmon and waterfowl, that are too big to carry off, are eaten on site and repeatedly visited until consumed.

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Buttonbush Seeds Maturing

9-17-15  buttonbush flowering IMG_2573During the summer, Buttonbush’s one-and-a-half-inch-diameter, white flower balls can be spotted along shorelines and in wetlands. The fragrance of this shrub’s flowers attracts many pollinators, especially bumblebees and butterflies (their tongues are long enough to reach the deep nectaries). After pollination, the 200-plus flowers on each head of this member of the Coffee family produce small nutlets that are dispersed by water and consumed by waterfowl (particularly surface-feeding dabbling ducks), American Bitterns, rails and Northern Bobwhites. (photo: buttonbush seed head)

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Hooded Merganser Ducklings on the Water

6-17 hooded mergansers IMG_4318Hooded Merganser ducklings typically leap from their cavity nests in trees within twenty-four hours of hatching. Long claws on their feet aid them in climbing up to the opening of the cavity in order to join their mother who is calling from below. The ducklings feed themselves (aquatic insects and invertebrates) from day one, and are capable of shallow dives as soon as they leave their nest. The mother (who has been their sole caretaker since she started incubating the eggs) often moves her brood downstream to larger lakes, rivers and bays from smaller streams and ponds near the nest site. Eventually she leaves her young, anywhere from a month or two after they hatch, often before they can fly.

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Wood Ducks Return to Breeding Grounds

4-13-15  wood ducks 284You can find waterfowl in almost every open body of water, from puddles to ponds, at this time of year. Among these migrating waterfowl are colorful Wood Ducks returning to northern New England to breed, having already formed mating pairs. Their courtship displays enable them to maintain this pair bond. The most common display involves the male’s turning the back of his head towards the female as he swims in front of her while holding his wings and tail high. Chin-lifting, feather-shaking, wing-preening, neck-stretching and bill-jerking are just some of the displays that occur during Wood Duck courtship.

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