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Waterfowl

Harlequin Ducks: Aquatic Acrobats

Picture a roiling sea off the coast of northern New England, foaming with white caps with waves crashing onto a rocky shore.  Then imagine yourself just a few yards offshore, diving down and being able to both find and capture a snail, crab or barnacle as the water bounces you up and down and sideways.  Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) not only choose this turbulent habitat in the winter, but embrace it in the summer when they seek out fast-flowing white water rivers and streams on which to breed. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology states that the Harlequin Duck’s ability to swim and feed among the boulders of a raging river is unmatched. Small wonder that they have been found to have more broken bones than any other species!

According to birdsoftheworld.org, the Harlequin Duck’s name derives from a character of traditional Italian comedy and pantomime, the harlequin, who appeared in costumes of multicolored triangular patches and displayed histrionics (tricks) – note scientific name of genus and species. They are also known as sea mice, due to their squeaky vocalizations when interacting with each other.

Sadly, the East Coast wintering population is estimated at no more than 1,500 and this species has been listed as Endangered in Canada. (Photo: from left to right – two females, two males and a female Harlequin Duck mid-wave)

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Where Do Common Loons That Breed in New England Spend The Winter?

In northern New England, Common Loons nest and raise their young on inland lakes and ponds.  By late fall, when most of the lakes have started to freeze over, the majority of loons head for the East Coast although some do overwinter on open, inland, freshwater lakes.  Loons that migrate spend the winter in their new, drabber plumage off the Northeast coast where they apparently have no problem adapting to salt water and the change of diet which that entails. 

Predominantly fish-eaters, Common Loons favor yellow perch, pumpkin seed and bluegill in addition to other species of fish, crayfish and aquatic invertebrates.  In the winter they feed primarily on flounder and herring, as well as crustaceans.  Most of their food is consumed under water, but a large fish or crustacean, such as a crab (see photo) or an occasional lobster, is usually eaten after surfacing. One adaption that serves them well in the winter is a salt gland that excretes excess salt that they ingest while feeding in the ocean. 

Just as they have territories on their breeding lakes, many wintering loons return to the same area year after year, occupying a 6-12 square mile “home range” area for the duration of the winter. Common Loons typically stay close to shore and their large size makes them relatively easy to spot. (Thanks to Susan Holland for photo opportunity.)

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Snow Geese Migrating

The Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens) is one of the most abundant species of waterfowl in the world.  The eastern population of Snow Geese migrate in very large flocks from their high Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast during October and November. Birds from the same breeding population use many of the same stopover sites, or staging areas, where they rest and refuel each year. Here they forage and eat the stems, seeds, leaves, tubers and roots of grasses, sedges and rushes in addition to waste grains such as wheat and corn in fields where crops have been cut.

 Snow Geese are dimorphic – they have two color morphs, light-morph (white) and dark-morph (blue).  Most of the blue-morph Snow Geese breed and winter in central U.S., however, they are present in the East, just not as common as the white-morph. Until 1983, the 2 color morphs were considered separate species.

Those of us lucky enough to live near a staging area keep our eyes out for clouds of white “snowflakes” swirling in the sky at this time of year, and our ears tuned for the sound of baying hounds, for that is what an approaching flock of thousands of Snow Geese sounds like. (Photo: Blue-morph Snow Geese circled in red.)

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The Perils Of Being A Duckling

Recently I encountered a single Common Goldeneye duckling frantically peeping as it swam around and around a pond with no other ducks or ducklings in sight. The gray-brown color of its eyes and the remains of an egg tooth at the tip of its bill indicated that it had hatched very recently. Because it couldn’t fly (it takes 50-70 days for most ducklings to attain flight status) nor swim fast enough to escape predators (such as largemouth bass, northern pike and other big fish, bullfrogs, snakes, snapping turtles, foxes, mink, raccoons, hawks, owls, gulls, crows and herons), it was extremely vulnerable. 

In addition to predation, weather conditions threaten duckling survival.  While their fuzzy down feathers are an excellent source of natural insulation in dry weather, they are of little value when wet. In addition, ducklings also lack the thermal protection of adult contour feathers. Cold, rainy, and windy conditions can lead to death from exposure (hypothermia) and may reduce food availability.

There was no obvious explanation for why this duckling was not in the company of its mother and siblings.  One can only hope that they were reunited in short order, as there is a bit more safety in numbers. Hopefully the fortitude it took for this youngster to leap from its nest cavity to the water below will serve it well in the days to come.

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Wood Ducks Returning To Northern New England

A welcome sign of spring in northern New England is the return of the Wood Duck to wooded swamps and wetlands.  There are seven species of North American ducks that regularly nest in cavities and the Wood Duck is uniquely adapted for doing so.  Its slim body allows it to use Pileated Woodpecker cavities for nesting and the acuity of its large eyes allows it to avoid branches while flying through wooded areas.  Even so, it still tends to make one look twice to see ducks perched up in a tree!

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Hooded Merganser Ducklings On The Water

It’s hard to picture a duck flying straight into a cavity in a tree, but there are several species of waterfowl that do just that in order to incubate their eggs in a relatively safe location.  The female Hooded Merganser selects a nesting site in a living or dead tree cavity or in a handmade nest box. Once mating and egg-laying has occurred, the male disappears, leaving his mate to raise and care for their offspring.

Within 24 hours of her eggs hatching, the female calls to her young from the cavity opening or from the water below, encouraging them to leap up to the opening and hurl themselves out into the world. The entire brood departs the nest within a couple of minutes. As soon as they hit the water, the precocial young ducks are swimming, diving and feeding on water boatmen, backswimmers, diving beetles and other aquatic invertebrates.

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Wrong Mystery Solved!

My apologies to the 50+/- NC readers who responded with great creativity to the latest Mystery Photo!  The photographer and I had a miscommunication, and I misdirected readers about the actual mystery you were to solve!  I thought the photographer had observed a goose making the two parallel lines in the ice with their feet (nails) as they landed. However, these two lines are actually just cracks in the ice, as many readers guessed (Susan Cloutier was the first to correctly identify them).   While Canada Geese do use their feet as well as their wings as brakes to slow themselves down before they land and they do have a hind toe which conceivably could scratch the ice, the landing imprints of the geese (and what I should have asked readers to identify) are actually in the upper half of the photo (see red circle) where the snow has been plowed aside, revealing the darker ice underneath.   The presence of a considerable amount of goose droppings confirms the identity of the birds landing on the ice.

Observers often ask how Canada Geese or other waterfowl can stand for long periods of time on frozen lakes and ponds.The legs and feet of waterfowl play an important part in maintaining their body temperature.  In the summer, their large, flat feet cool their body by releasing a good deal of heat.  In winter, the heat exchange system (counter-current circulation) in a bird’s legs prevents a great deal of body heat loss due to the fact that the warm arterial blood going into the bird’s feet is cooled by the colder blood traveling back to the body in adjacent veins.  Constricted blood vessels in their legs further conserves heat. (Photo by Mike Hebb)

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Canada Geese Nesting On Beaver Lodges

4-29-19 c. goose on beaver lodge _U1A7241If you are fortunate enough to have a beaver pond near you, you should give the lodge more than a cursory glance this time of year. It is common to find Canada Geese nesting on beaver lodges, for obvious reasons – safety from most land predators. While Common ravens have been known to raid Canada Goose nests for eggs and goslings, the overall rate of survival of the goslings of lodge-nesting geese is very high.

A Canadian study showed that ponds with beaver lodges (and therefore Beaver activity which warms the water and thaws the ice) thaw at least 11 days sooner than ponds without Beavers, allowing early access to water for Canada Geese returning for the spring nesting season. Battles between pairs of geese vying for these coveted nesting sites are not uncommon.

Canada Geese have much to thank Beavers for. Not only can geese get an early nesting start on beaver lodges, they have a relatively safe spot to incubate their eggs and raise their young.

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Hooded Mergansers Returning

3-11-19 hooded mergansers IMG_3457Keep your eye out for increasing numbers of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) on open lakes, ponds and rivers. Although these birds can be found in most of New England year-round (some overwinter as far north as ice permits), much of the population overwinters in the Southeast. Hooded Merganser migration northwards begins particularly early in the spring — they often arrive on breeding grounds within days of ice out. (Photo: Hooded Merganser pair, female in foreground)

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American Black Ducks Vs. Mallards

2-27-19 black ducksAmerican Black Ducks (Anas rubripes), found year-round in all parts of New England except for northern Maine, are nearly identical to Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) in size, shape and voice. Both have rounded heads, thick bills, and bulky bodies. Like other dabbling ducks they sit high in the water with their tails high. These two closely related species often keep company with each other and it can be challenging to tell them apart, but it is possible to distinguish them with some certainty.

Most of the year male (drake) Mallards have a distinctive iridescent green head, a white neck ring and a yellow bill. However, the female (hen) Mallard’s plumage is very similar to that of both drake and hen Black Ducks. One of the most dependable ways to tell these two species apart is to look for the dark chocolate-colored body of the Black Duck, which is noticeably darker than the hen Mallard’s. At rest, the Black Duck is a uniform very dark brown from the bottom of its neck to its tail. The hen Mallard is a much lighter brown in this area, and in addition has a pale whitish patch on the belly. The color of the bill can also help with identification — the hen Mallard’s bill is orange and black, whereas the Black Duck’s bill ranges from a dusky yellow (drake) to a drab olive (hen) color. All of these identification clues go out the window when hybrids of these two species are encountered! (Photo: American Black Duck drake (L) and hen (R) )

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Vulnerable Ducklings

6-20-18 woody & ducklings IMG_8636

There is a reason why ducklings remain with their mother for their first month or two of life. It takes 50-70 days before most ducklings can fly, and survival during this period is highly variable, ranging from less than 10 percent to as high as 70 percent. They are at their most vulnerable during this stage. The most common causes of duckling mortality include predation, adverse weather conditions, starvation, disease, and parasites. The mother offers her young a degree of protection from some of these factors while they are under her care.

Predation is arguably the greatest threat to young waterfowl. Ducklings are sought after by nearly every type of predator, including other birds (eagles, hawks, owls, herons, crows), fish (largemouth bass and northern pike), amphibians (bullfrogs), reptiles (snakes and snapping turtles), and mammals (foxes, raccoons, and mink).  Their odds for survival increase dramatically when the ducklings obtain the ability to fly.  (Photo: female Wood Duck and ducklings)

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Wood Duck Ducklings Are Growing Up

8-1-17 wood ducks2 049A1473One morning several weeks ago, broods of Wood Duck nestlings leaped out of their nest holes onto the ground or into the water beneath their nest trees. After leaving their nests, most traveled long distances (an average of 1 1/4 miles) with their mothers to rearing areas.

The earliest broods to hatch already have their juvenile (or “first basic”) plumage, which will remain through August. Male juvenile Wood Ducks can be distinguished from female juveniles by the two white finger-like projections that go up their cheeks and neck from their throat. The females lack these stripes but have a wider white patch around their eyes. The pictured male juvenile Wood Ducks are between eight and nine weeks old. Very soon their eyes will turn red and they will be able to fly.

 

 


Snow Geese Resting & Feeding on Staging Areas As They Migrate North

3-28-`7 snow geese090Most of the U.S.’s eastern population of Snow Geese has been wintering along Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina, and will breed in the subarctic and arctic tundra near the coast.   These Snow Geese depart North Carolina and Virginia for Delaware Bay mid- to late February. After resting and refueling at Delaware Bay, they depart and migrate through western Connecticut, the Hudson River, and Lake Champlain throughout March and early April, stopping to rest and refuel along the way at various locations (referred to as staging areas).  Most Snow Geese arrive at their Arctic breeding grounds by mid- to late May.

During spring migration, flocks of family groups and individuals migrate both day and night.  These flocks consist of anywhere from 35 to 400 birds. Many factors influence the timing and duration of spring migration from year to year, including inconsistencies of weather and the availability of food at stopover sites and on breeding grounds. Snow Geese tend to migrate with southerly or southwesterly winds, high temperature, falling pressure, low humidity, good visibility, and no precipitation. Their northerly progress is closely related to the disappearance of ice and snow – they can feed only after both have melted and perennial vegetation is exposed.

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Green-winged Teals Molting & Migrating

11-2-16-male-green-winged-teal-by-jeannie-male-moltingIn much of New England Green-winged Teals, our smallest dabbling (feed mainly on the surface rather than diving) ducks, are present either during the breeding season, or over the winter, but most of Vermont and New Hampshire have to settle for glimpses during spring and fall migration. Often these ducks stop to rest and refuel on shallow ponds, marshes and flooded fields. While occasionally one or two are spotted amongst a group of mallards, typically they are found in small groups that often congregate in large flocks.

The pictured male is soon to complete its fall “prealternate molt,” in which all body feathers except the innermost feathers of wing are replaced. When finished, he will sport brilliant cinnamon and green head feathers as part of his alternate, or breeding, plumage. Next July he will molt these feathers and acquire a duller basic, or non-breeding, plumage.   (Photo by Jeannie Killam)

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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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Early Nesting Hooded Mergansers Seeking Tree Cavities

4-6-15  hooded merganser, male 367In northern New England you are most likely to see Hooded Mergansers in the spring and fall when they are migrating to and from their breeding grounds in northern Canada (some nest in New England, as well). Hooded Mergansers tend to arrive in their breeding areas as soon as the ice starts to melt, and have been known to start laying eggs in March in Massachusetts and April in Vermont. Often some of the earliest eggs laid in a nest will freeze and crack and never hatch.

Hooded Mergansers are cavity nesters, frequently choosing trees that are close to ponds, marshes, swamps or streams. They compete with Wood Ducks for nest boxes put out by humans, and females of both species may lay eggs in the same nest, with one or the other incubating the eggs. Sometimes the duck that initiated the nest does the incubation, but more often the hen laying the majority of the eggs will do so. Because both species have the same incubation period, all the eggs hatch at the same time.

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Hooded Mergansers Seek Open Water

hooded merg in snow 050Hooded Mergansers are short-distance migrants that can be found in eastern North America year round where ponds and rivers remain open and slow-moving fish, insects and crayfish are plentiful. Some individuals migrate south and southwest in winter — 80% of birds banded in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York were recovered in coastal Atlantic states from New Jersey to Florida. A smaller number actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. While numbers swell in March/April and November in northern New England due to migration, if there is open water you may well see Hooded Mergansers this far north throughout the winter.

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Canada Geese Switch Diet to Berries & Grains

12-4-14  Canada geese2 IMG_5615During migration and throughout the winter, Canada Geese are highly gregarious, often gathering and feeding in flocks that consist of over a thousand geese. Almost exclusively herbivorous, they are efficient grazers, having serrations on their stout, flat bills. During summer they feed primarily on grasses and sedges. Considered a nuisance by many people with large lawns Canada Geese are attracted to these lawns not only because they can digest grass, but also because they have an unobstructed view that allows them to detect approaching predators. During and following migration, berries (especially blueberries) and agricultural grains including sorghum, corn and winter wheat make up most of their diet. When you see them in cornfields, they are feeding on fallen kernels as well as corn still on dry cobs — they are very good at removing the kernels.

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