Category Archives: Water and Shore

Nests Over Water

Green heron, Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)
Green heron, Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

Why does this bird have his crest raised?

Perhaps someone came too close to his nest.

Green herons (Butorides virescens) are shy waders in swampy thickets, preferring to fish in the shadows and nest alone.  Because of their secretive nature it’s always surprising to find a nest.

When green herons return to Pennsylvania in the spring they’re already paired up for nesting.  The male chooses the location, usually in a small tree over water, giving preference to last year’s site if it was successful.  He starts to build the nest but as soon as his lady gets the hint his job is to bring the sticks as she places them.  Then she lays 4-5 eggs.

Green heron nesting in Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)
Green heron nesting in Florida, March 2018 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

With this dual building effort it’s amazing that the structure is sometimes so thin that you can see the eggs through it from below.

That is, if you can find the nest.  Green herons don’t want you to.  They fly away loudly if you come too close.  Typically they sound like this (Xeno Canto 147343 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)

… but if they’re really annoyed they are much louder (Xeno Canto 145806 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)

Right now most of Pennsylvania’s green herons have young in the nest and the parents are busy bringing food.  At 16-17 days old the chicks will climb out of the nest — or swim if they have to.  They’ll fly at 21-22 days old.

Stay alert for the sight and sound green herons.  You might find a nest over water.

Bob Kroeger found these herons in Florida.

 

(photos by Bob Kroeger of South Dennis, MA. Bob photographs birds for fun and shares them on Facebook. Here’s his business website.)

Tiny Rails

  • A Virginia Rail out in the open. Why is it visible? (Mittry Lake, AZ, 23 April 2018. photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)

The further south you go, the earlier the birds nest.  In late April we’re excited that Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) have just returned to Pennsylvania.  In southern Arizona they already have families.

Steve Valasek found this out when he went looking for black rails (a very rare bird!) at Mittry Lake in Yuma County, Arizona on 23 April.  He didn’t find a black rail but he did find tiny rails that were black.

When he spotted a Virginia rail out in the open he wondered, ” Why isn’t it hiding like they normally do?”  In this slideshow of his photos you’ll find out why.

Read about Steve’s adventure on his blog: Virginia Rails.  See full size photos here.

 

p.s. The Second Breeding Bird Atlas of Pennsylvania says the median egg date for Virginia rails in our state is 6 June. Since the eggs are incubated for 19 days and the chicks are precocial (they walk from the nest), the right time to see a Virginia Rail family in Pennsylvania would be early July. Good luck! They’re usually impossible to find.

(photos by Steve Valasek)

Are They Old Enough To Fly?

Family of Canada geese, late May 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)
Family of Canada geese, late May 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

People are often surprised that “baby” peregrines are so big when they leave the nest. Aren’t baby birds supposed to be small?  Not when they fly.

Birds can’t begin to fly without a full set of flight feathers. Wing and tail feathers have to be fully grown, or nearly so, to make flight possible.  This is especially true for peregrine falcons who don’t leave the nest until they’re ready to fly, and that first flight is from a cliff!

By the time baby birds finish growing their flight feathers their bodies are the same size as their parents.  Some species make do with less.  Young American robins can fly when their tail feathers are still short. This makes them look smaller.

We’re fooled into thinking baby birds are supposed to leave the nest when they’re small because we often see ducklings. Baby ducks and geese walk away shortly after hatching, then swim with their parents for safety.  They don’t fly for quite a while.

So what do you think? Are the young geese in Lauri Shaffer’s photo able to fly yet?

Here are two clues to the answer:  1. They still look fuzzy with down. 2. They’re much smaller than the adult.

 

(photo by Lauri Shaffer, birdingpictures.com)

 

Why Ducks Are Hard to Identify in Flight

American wigeon pair on the water (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
American wigeon pair on the water (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s relatively easy to identify ducks on water because they look like the pictures in the field guides.

Even when the female is boring, the male is usually colorful as shown in this pair of American wigeons (Mareca americana).  He’s the one with a green nape, white crown, white butt, and black tail.  The black and white features are unique, even from a distance.

But in flight it’s another story.  Here are three American wigeons in the air.  I’m stumped!

American wigeons in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
American wigeons in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Why are they so hard to identify? Because we see two body parts that aren’t visible when they’re swimming — bellies and underwings.  Who knew that wigeons have white bellies?

The best way to identify ducks in flight is by using black-and-white drawings.  This Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife brochure is the closest thing I’ve found online:  Ducks at a Distance.  See pages 50-51.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Strange In Many Ways

Wattled jacana alighting, composite Pantanal Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Wattled jacana alighting, composite Pantanal Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Panama:

The wattled jacana looks pretty strange but that’s only the beginning.

Though related to shorebirds Jacana jacana has a wattle on his face like a chicken, and very long toes that are longer than his ‘nose’ (beak).

His toes are long because he spends his life walking on floating vegetation, a habit that’s given him the nickname “lily-trotter.”   When his footing is submerged he looks like he’s walking on water.

The jacana’s social life is even stranger.  Like a phalarope, a female jacana mates with multiple males and never takes care of her young.  She lays four eggs in a floating nest but it’s up to one of her mates to incubate the eggs and protect the young after they hatch.

Weirdest of all, the father bird doesn’t incubate by placing his belly against the eggs.  Instead he puts two eggs under each wing and keeps them warm against his body.

Later, when the newly hatched chicks are too small to walk alone, he tucks the chicks under his wings and walks away with them.  Their little legs dangle beneath his wings. Click here and look closely at the photo to see what I mean.

Female wattled jacanas are larger than males but the birds otherwise look alike.  How do you identify a male wattled jacana? Because he’s babysitting.

Here’s a father with a chick in the background.  If you can’t see the chick, click on the photo to see the original that has a box around the chick.

Wattled jacana with young, Venezuela (photo by Gregory 'Slobirdr' Smith via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Wattled jacana with young, Venezuela (photo by Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Native to Panama and South America, the wattled jacana is strange in many ways.

 

(photo at top from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original.  Wattled jacana with chick by Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Day 5:  Cerro Azul, waterfront at Panama Viejo

It’s Time For Ducks

Bufflehead landing, March 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male bufflehead, March 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ducks, grebes, coots and loons are migrating north through western Pennsylvania this month.  It’s time to get outdoors and see them before they’re gone.

Here are just a few of the species reported in Butler and Westmoreland Counties last weekend, photographed by Steve Gosser during spring migration 2011 to 2017.  If you like Steve’s photos, check out the opportunity below to see his presentation in Clarion, PA tonight, March 14.

Above a male bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) comes in for a landing.  Notice how pink his feet are in March!

Below, a redhead (Aythya americana) stretches his wings while ducks and geese sleep in the background.

A redhead stretches his wing (photo by Steve Gosser)
A redhead stretches his wing, late February 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

A male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) displays his crown.

Male hooded merganser showing his crown, March 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male hooded merganser showing his crown, March 2015 (photo by Steve Gosser)

American coots (Fulica americana) wade in shallow water as they feed.

American coots feeding in shallow water, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
American coots feeding in shallow water, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

The male northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata) is distinctive with his long shovel bill, green head, and rusty flanks.

Male northern shoveler, March 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male northern shoveler, March 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Below, ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) take off.  Because of the white ring around their bills, I sometimes call them ring-billed ducks by accident.  The ring is a good field mark.

Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

A red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena) in breeding plumage, March 2014.

Red-necked grebe, March 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Red-necked grebe, March 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Get outdoors soon to see migrating waterfowl.

Meanwhile, see more of Steve Gosser’s photos tonight March 14 at 6:30pm at the Clarion Free Library in Clarion, PA.  Steve will be sharing his favorite photos and birding adventures at the Seneca Rocks Audubon meeting.  All are welcome.   More info here: http://www.senecarocksaudubon.org

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

High Water!

Moderately high water on the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 15 Feb 2018, 9:30am (photo by Kate St. John)
Moderately high water on the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, Thursday 15 Feb 2018, 9:30am (photo by Kate St. John)

SCROLL DOWN TO SEE UPDATES.
This week in the space of 40 hours — Feb 14, 4:30pm to Feb 16, 9:50am — the Pittsburgh region received 2.5+ inches of rain.  At first it flooded creeks and streams. Now it’s in the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.

Since I live near the Mon River I went down to Duck Hollow to see what it looked like.  In video below from Friday morning 16 Feb, the island of treetops in Thursday’s photo had disappeared.

Today (Saturday) the rivers are even higher and I don’t have to visit them to find out.  The PennDOT traffic cams tell the story.

In Downtown Pittsburgh there’s a stretch of I-376 westbound called “The Bathtub” that dips into the Mon River flood zone.  Last month it was the site of exciting river rescues when two people drove their vehicles into it as the water was rising.  Click here to see a Live Video of the rescues.

This morning The Bathtub is full, as shown in before-and-after photos from the PennDOT traffic cam:  Yesterday (Feb 16) on the left, today (Feb 17) on the right, both at 7:20am.

PennDOT traffic cam at The Bathtub: Feb 16 2018 (before the flood) and Feb 17 (after)
PennDOT traffic cam at The Bathtub: Feb 16 2018 (before the flood) and Feb 17 (during)

The Allegheny is flooding, too, at the 10th Street Bypass.

PennDOT traffic cam at the 10th Street Bypass, 17 Feb 2018, 7:20am
PennDOT traffic cam at the 10th Street Bypass, 17 Feb 2018, 7:20am

All of this is “Minor” flooding in Pittsburgh per the National Weather Service.  (Flooding on the Youghiogheny River in Sutersville nearly reached the “Major” stage last night.  It’s receding now.)

Later this morning I’ll go down to Duck Hollow and see what’s up.  The water’s up for sure!

UPDATES: Saturday Feb 17 & Sunday Feb 18.

The Monongahela River crested around mid morning on Sat. February 17 and started to go down a little by noon.
17 Feb 2018, 9:30am:  I saw small fish swimming in the parking lot! Two Canada geese float by beyond the guardrail.

No parking today!

At the edge of the Mon River at Duck Hollow, 17 Feb 2018, 9:30am
At the edge of the Mon River at Duck Hollow, 17 Feb 2018, 9:30am

17 Feb 2018, 12:11pm: The water has started to recede, though not by much.

18 Feb 2018, 6:00am:  The Bathtub on I-376 and the 10th Street Bypass are still closed due to flooding.  The water is about 1/3 to 1/2 gone.

 

 

(Duck Hollow photos and videos by Kate St. John. Traffic cam snapshots from PennDOT)

Tundra Swans On The Move

In the next few weeks tundra swans and snow geese will move north through Pennsylvania on their way to the Arctic. The best place to see them is at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Kleinfeltersville.

Though the birds are anxious to get home they wait for winter to break its grip, moving only as far north as open water and fields without snow cover.  They look for open water to rest at night and visible food in the fields.

It’s always hard to predict when waterfowl numbers will reach their peak at Middle Creek but this year must be especially challenging. This winter’s hot-and-cold weather has created thick ice, then open water, then ice again. The snow geese have come and gone and come again.

PA Game Commission counts the geese and swans every day and posts Thursday’s count on their Migration Update page.  The latest report on February 8 says:

Snow Geese: 50,000
Canada geese: 5,000
Tundra swans: 2,500
Since the last update, the majority of the snow goose numbers have returned and seem to be holding there.

Even though I saw lots of snow geese and tundra swans at the Snow Goose Festival in California I still want to go to Middle Creek.  I like to arrive at Willow Point before dawn and watch the snow geese leave the lake after sunrise in an explosive burst.  Then the tundra swans put on a beautiful show.

Tundra swans get in synch on the water before they fly.  They swim together, bob their heads, and hum “whooooo” as they go.  Near the moment of takeoff the flock swims in line, bobbing their heads frequently and humming loudly.  And then they’re off!

Watch them prepare for takeoff in this video from Wisconsin.

Later this month I’ll go see tundra swans on the move.

 

(video by Dale Bohlke on YouTube)

What date is best?  Here are the peak dates in 2016 & 2017 from the Middle Creek Migration Update page:

2017 Migration Summary:
Snow geese: 70,000+ on 02/22/17
Tundra swans: 4,500+ on 02/6/17  <– notice how early this was!
Canada geese: 5,000+ on 02/10/17

2016 Migration Summary:
Snow geese: 65,000+ on 02/29/16
Tundra swans: 3,500+ on 02/29/16
Canada geese: several hundred on 02/09/16

Scenes from the Central Valley

Snow geese flying at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Broken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license 3.0)
Snow geese flying at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Broken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license 3.0)

A week ago I was at the 19th annual Snow Goose Festival in Chico, California.  Located in the north Central Valley, it’s a great place to see birds in January.  44% of the waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway spend the winter there!   Here are some impressions from my trip.  (Note: bird photos are from Wikimedia Commons.)

What attracts so many ducks and geese to the Central Valley?  It’s obvious from the air.  The land is flooded with shallow ponds (rice fields) and wetlands.

Rice fields seen from the air approaching Sacramento Airport (photo by Kate St. John)
Rice fields seen from the air approaching Sacramento Airport (photo by Kate St. John)

In winter a million geese come to stay:  greater white-fronted geese, snow geese, and some Ross’s geese.  Ross’s geese look the same as snow geese but they’re smaller and hard to pick out.  At the Festival I learned an easy way to identify a Ross’s goose in flight:  Look for an obviously small goose in a V of snow geese.  Ta dah!

The most plentiful duck in winter is the northern pintail, far outnumbering all other species.  Scanning the thousands of ducks at Llano Seco, the majority were pintails with American wigeons and northern shovelers mixed in. Mallards were rare.

Northern pintails (photo by Alan Schmierer via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)
Northern pintails (photo by Alan Schmierer via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

In January the flowers bloom because it’s the rainy season.  These pipevine flowers were in Upper Bidwell Park.

Pipevine flowers, host of the pipevine swallowtail (photo by Kate St. John)
Pipevine flowers, host of the pipevine swallowtail (photo by Kate St. John)

 

At Lime Saddle we saw the upper reaches of the Feather River, now a tributary inside Lake Oroville reservoir.  When the reservoir is full, the water reaches the tree line.  It’s low now; perhaps they’re being cautious.  Last year the spillways broke and forced the evacuation of 188,000 people.

Very low water - almost none - on the upper reaches of the Feather River at Lake Oroville, 27 Jan 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Low water on the upper reaches of the Feather River at Lake Oroville. Route 70 bridge in the distance. 27 Jan 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

At Lime Saddle we hiked near the flume, a man-made canal that bypasses Lake Oroville reservoir.  Because I’m from the East, California water rights are strange to me.  Just as in the early days of cell networks when each carrier erected its own tower, water-owners in California build their own watercourses to separate their water from other uses.

Hiking by the Flume near Lime Saddle (photo by Kate St. John)
Hiking along the Flume near Lime Saddle (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Just before sunset white-faced ibises fly in to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to roost.

White-faced ibis in flight (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)
White-faced ibis in flight (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

And after sunset the ducks and geese leave the refuge to go feed in the rice fields at night, thus avoiding the hunters.

Sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, 26 Jan 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

A beautiful end to my trip in California’s Central Valley.

 

(bird photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.  All other photos by Kate St. John)

Bread Is Bad For Birds

Duckling awaiting bread (photo by Jourdain Nicolas via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Duckling screaming for bread (photo by Jourdain Nicolas via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

What do you do with a stale loaf of bread?  Do you feed it to the birds?  Uh oh!  Did you know that bread is bad for birds?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to poison them. It’s just that for birds bread has no nutritional value.  They’ll fill up on it instead of the food that’s good for them.

Bread is junk food for birds.  So are crackers, chips, french fries, donuts, cereal and popcorn, to name a few.  These foods are especially bad for ducklings because their little bodies have special nutritional needs.

Since the birds won’t control their own junk food intake, you shouldn’t feed them bread.  This isn’t an edict from the Food Police.  It’s just common sense because …

If you’re the only person feeding the birds you can give them good food all the time (see list below) and feed bread sparingly as a junk food treat and it won’t cause trouble.

But at places where lots of people are feeding bread to birds, your bread adds to the problem.  Here’s an visual example.  Do you recognize the spillway at Pymantuning?

Tossing bread to fish, ducks and geese at Pymatuning Spillway area (photo by Brian Byrnes via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Tossing bread to fish, ducks and geese at Pymatuning Spillway area (photo by Brian Byrnes via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

When you visit a park or waterway where other people feed the birds, bring good food for ducks and geese such as:

  • Cracked corn, barley, oats or other grains
  • Birdseed
  • Lettuce and cabbage (cut or torn)
  • Grapes (cut in half to prevent choking) and fruit (cut up)
  • Frozen peas or corn kernels (defrost them)
  • Duck feed pellets (from farm supply stores)
  • Worms, mealworms and night crawlers (fish bait)
  • And by the way, ducks love dry cat/dog food but the park won’t want you to bring it.

Read more about feeding bread to ducks, including the health problems it causes, at The Spruce: Is Feeding Ducks Bread Bad?

Yes, bread is bad for birds.

 

(photos credits: duckling photo by Jourdain Nicolas via Flickr, Creative Commons license; Pymatuning photo by Brian Byrnes via Flickr, Creative Commons license)