For a bird that eats fish for a living, what possible advantage could there be in having feathers that get waterlogged?
Water beads up on the plumage of ducks and loons but the feathers of double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) are “wettable” so they spend more than half their day out of the water loafing, preening and spreading their wings to dry as shown in the video above(*).
Baby birds grow so fast! Two months ago this loon chick was only one day old at Acadia National Park in Maine. By now he’s as big as his parents and almost ready to migrate.
Every year I visit Acadia in early September (I’m there this week) but I arrive too late to see baby birds. Claire Staples spent most of the summer in Maine and followed a family of loons at Beech Hill Pond. Here’s what the chicks looked like as they got older.
At five weeks old, on August 3, the chicks are not as big as their parents and are still quite downy. They swim but they cannot fly.
Fluffy loon chick waves his foot at 5 weeks old, 3 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)
At six weeks old they still depend on their parents for food.
Adult loon brings food for 6-week-old chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)
Are you at a sandy beach? If not, rule out sanderlings. If yes, examine behavior and size. Sanderlings walk on sand, they chase the waves, and they’re noticeably bigger than least and semipalmated. Sanderlings also look whiter than the other two.
Size: Least and semipalmated are smaller than all the other species.
Legs: If you can see colors and the birds legs aren’t muddy you’ve hit the jackpot. Least sandpipers are the only peeps with yellow or greenish legs. If you cannot see leg color then …
Posture while feeding: Imagine a person knee-bending (least) versus extended out to reach something (semipalmated).
Least sandpipers crouch with bent legs and peck near their toes. They look hunched.
Semipalmated sandpipers reach out with their bills to find food. They look stretched out and their tails may be cocked higher.
(Western and semipalmated postures are similar. Fortunately, there are no westerns here and now.)
Bills: All are black.
Least sandpiper bills taper to a fine point with slight droop at the tip.
Semipalmated bills are shorter and straight, sometimes slightly blunt at the tip.
Micro-habitat: According to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion: “Any lone peep in marginal habitat is likely to be a Least (baked mud or tight watery leads flanked by rank tiny puddles).” They say that leasts like edges.
So which one of the birds above is a least sandpiper? It’s a trick question. Both are. And yet they’re standing up to their bellies in water to confound the “leasts liked edges” statement. Notice their yellow legs.
Lesser yellowlegs and Greater yellowlegs (photos by Bobby Greene)
Robins and song sparrows are still nesting but shorebird migration has already begun. Lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) have already arrived in western Pennsylvania and will be followed soon by their look-alike cousins, the greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).
How do you identify these similar birds?
First, they’re different from other shorebirds. Though their plumage may confuse you, these are tall long-billed birds with uniquely bright long yellow legs. Both of them will wade and swim in deep water. (The solitary sandpiper, also a Tringa, is shorter with greenish legs.)
And they’re different from each other. If a lesser and greater yellowlegs are in the same pond they’re easy to distinguish by size — greater is bigger than lesser — but you’re not usually that lucky. Here are some additional clues:
The bill is only as long as its head. Measure the underside from the chin.
Bill is longer than its head front-to-back.
Tu …or… Tu-Tu (1 or 2 Tu’s)
Tu-Tu-Tu (3 or 4 Tu’s in a row) This bird is noisy! Will give a single Tu over and over when agitated. The way to remember greater vs lesser: 3 Tus are greater than 1.
Dainty, slender, weighs 2.8 oz
Substantial, a bit bulky, weighs 6 oz
Dainty. Picks at surface or under water. Runs sometimes.
On Wednesday we had close looks at purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) at Manasquan Inlet, above, and I finally learned why this brown sandpiper is called “purple.” In good light his slight iridescence produces a pinkish-purple sheen in the middle of each feather. Who knew!
It was a real treat to see the harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) at Barnegat Light. They’re fearless in rough water.
Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)
Mallards (Anasplatyrhynchos) are common ducks in the northern hemisphere so their courtship behavior is easy to observe. Here are tips on what you’ll see in March as they prepare for nesting next month.
Did you know that mallards are already paired up by now? They start forming pair bonds in September and most have a mate by the end of the year. This leaves some unattached bachelors however because their sex ratio is usually skewed — 1.33 males for every female.
Now that they’re paired up they get down to the serious business of making baby mallards. The video above shows several characteristic moves and sounds of a paired couple:
Head bobbing: a pre-copulatory action that gets them in tune with each other.
Inciting: The female (all brown) incites the male by dipping her bill in the water over her shoulder.
Leading: He turns back his head, then swims away from her to lead her away from the crowd; she follows.
Vocalizations: He whistles. She quacks loudly (only the females make the loud quacking sound).
The excitement went out of the pair shown above, but the video below shows head bobbing and copulation. Notice that the male always grabs the female by the back of the neck as he mounts her. After mating the pair bridles (rears up) and steams (swims with head low). Sometimes the male turns back his head and leads again.
Mallards are monogamous but Cornell Lab’s Birds of North America says that “paired males actively pursue forced extra pair copulations” — a polite name for what looks like gang rape. Knowing this, the paired males stay close to their females to protect them during the egg laying period.
After egg laying their match falls apart. Male mallards desert their mates during incubation and won’t pair up again until autumn. They can afford to do this because the females incubate alone and the ducklings are precocious.
So it’s only once a year that wild mallards make ducklings.
(videos from YouTube. Click on the YouTube links to see the originals)
If you’ve been watching the Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning falconcams this month, you’ve seen the peregrines bowing and “chirping” to each other in courtship display. Their rituals cement their pair bond and get them in tune with each other for the breeding season.
Some birds have fancier courtship displays. Pairs of waved albatrosses (Phoebastria irrorata) get reacquainted after six months at sea by doing a courtship dance.
The video above shows their elaborate ritualized moves: bill clacking, rapid bill circling, bowing, touching the ground and their sides with their beaks, raising their bills, and making a whoo sound. You have to visit the Galápagos to see them as it’s the only place where they breed.
The pairs do their dance in time for the female to lay her single egg in April to June. Nestlings reach adult size in December and leave the colony by January to forage at sea until they reach maturity at 5-6 years old.
Sadly, this species is critically endangered. The waved albatross’ range is confined to the Galápagos and the Humboldt current off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador. Though long-lived, these birds are slow to reproduce and their population is declining, especially at the hands of longline fishing.