Saturday, March 28, 2009

More on the Wild Duck

I was crouched. I inched myself forward. I pointed my camera, trying to get the exposure adjusted and the focus set. I heard steps to one side. They stopped. A voice whispered, “What do you have?” In my peripheral vision I could see him following the sight line of my camera.

“Uhmm, Mallard,” he said.

There were pages of commentary in his expression of those two words: "It’s just a Mallard ... You bother with a Mallard? ... Why waste your time? ... You’re not a real birder; real birders don’t bother with Mallards ... Garbage bird ... Taking a picture of the only thing you can identify? ... Good thing the camera is digital; you’re not wasting film ... How did they let non-birding riff-raff in here? ... You’ve got good optics, but that doesn’t make you a birder; you gotta know what to look at ... Mallard? What a waste of time!"

The silent commentary in his two spoken words went on. So did he. He resumed walking - not quietly. The Mallard drake flushed, flew, and disappeared into tall phragmites fifty feet away.

Familiarity does breed contempt, and the Mallard is the most familiar duck, even to people who know nothing about ducks. It is the progenitor of nearly all domestic ducks. It has lived in farmyards for centuries. It used to be known, when found in the wild, simply as the Wild Duck. It is so comfortable and adaptable around humans, that even today wild Mallards will domesticate themselves. They will occupy a city park and quickly learn that food can be quacked out of those bipedal creatures lolling in the grass and strolling the lanes.

The Mallard is so common and familiar to nearly everyone, that it is taken for granted and overlooked. Consider this second week on the Mallard to be my small effort at making us a little more knowledgeable about, and aware of, this familiar duck.

The Mallard is a dabbling duck. Dabblers are surface feeders. They often graze across lawns, golf course fairways, and fallow farm fields. Their most noticeable feeding posture is bottoms-up - head underwater and tail pointing straight up as they feed on something delectable beneath the surface.

But what do they feed on? Whatever they can: water plants, seeds, acorns, insects (they are particularly fond of grasshoppers), small aquatic animals like mollusks and crustaceans, and many grains. They may graze on corn, wheat, or wild-rice. For hundreds of years, hunters have known that Mallards which have fattened themselves on ripening grain make a very good meal.

In the early twentieth century, some economic justification was often necessary in gaining support for conservation efforts. Edward Forbush never missed such an opportunity. “Mallards,” he wrote, “are very destructive to the larvae of mosquitoes and appear to be much more effective than fish in clearing stagnant pools where mosquitoes breed. It is a well-known fact that these larvae, hatched in stagnant water, live and develop there into the full-grown insects. Ducks feeding about such pools eat thousands of the larvae and by stirring up the water drown thousands more.”

John James Audubon called the Mallard a true omnivore with an “extraordinary appetite.” It will “swallow any kind of offals, and feed on all sorts of garbage, even putrid fish, as well as on snakes and small quadrupeds. Nuts and fruits of all kinds are dainties to it ... My friend John Bachman, who usually raises a great number of Mallards every year, has the young fed on chopped fish, on which they thrive uncommonly well. So very greedy are these birds, that I have often observed a couple of them tugging for a long time against each other for the skin of an eel, which was already half swallowed by the one, while the other was engaged at the opposite end. They are expert fly-catchers, and are in the habit of patting with their feet the damp earth, to force ground-worms out of their burrows.”

On a January day several years ago, I was watching ducks in the pool beneath the Bellows Falls dam. There was a rare Redhead that I was looking for, so I passed quickly over the nearby Mallard. Then it occurred to me that the Mallard was not there. And then it was. I paid more attention to the Mallard and finally saw it dive. But the Mallard is a dabbling duck, a surface feeder, not a diving duck. I continued watching and saw the Mallard pop back to the surface, and then dive again. In all of my resources, only Kenn Kaufman told me that the Mallard forages “rarely by diving.” A characteristic of the Mallard’s success (and the success of any species) is its adaptability. For that particular Mallard, there was something out of its reach beneath the surface that was edible, and so he adapted, and dove.

Domestic ducks (descended from the Mallard) are often white, their plumage coloring having been bred out of them. I have seen domestic ducks put on a pond. Ducks and geese join the domestic fowl, led by the wild Mallards. By the end of the breeding season, there are some strangely colored ducks on the pond, part white, part gray, part green. A wild Mallard has generously scattered his wild seed and kept the domestic gene pool stirred.

Don’t let the charming children’s story, Make Way for Ducklings, fool you. Mr. Mallard is no family man. The Mallard is more inclined to hybridize than any other species. It does so most often with its very close relative, the American Black Duck, but it has also crossed with the Green-winged Teal, American Widgeon, and Northern Pintail, and with the less closely related Muscovy. The Mottled Duck, a native of Florida and the Gulf Coast is collecting so many Mallard genes that it is in danger of becoming endangered.

As I am writing, I have open before me the Sibley guide; on the left hand page is the Mallard; on the facing right hand page is the Mottled Duck and the American Black Duck. There is not a lot of difference between the females. So I am willing to come to the defense of the Mallard drake. When his hormones kick in during the Spring, there is one dominating thought in his duck brain, and that one thought clouds his vision, and dog-gone, the hens all look alike. And birders, naturalists, and ornithologists end up with hybrids and crosses they have to sort out.

Yes, the Mallard is familiar and common, but that does not make the drake any less handsome. Sneer if you want, but when you are birding with me, I am going to name the Mallard, I am going to admire him, and I am going to photograph him.

Good birding!

Audubon's Encounter with a Mallard & Her Family

John James Audubon's The Birds of America holds a well-deserved place in the literature and early nature writing of America. As I wrote about the Mallard, I found many parts of his account useful and informative. The following passage also captured me, but it did not fit into the focus of the columns. So I reproduce it here.

"Once I found a female leading her young through the woods, and no doubt conducting them towards the Ohio. When I first saw her, she had already observed me, and had squatted flat among the grass, with her brood around her. As I moved onwards, she ruffled her feathers, and hissed at me in the manner of a Goose, while the little ones scampered off in all directions. I had an excellent dog, well instructed to catch young birds without injuring them, and I ordered him to seek for them. On this the mother took to wing, and flew through the woods as if about to fall down at every yard or so. She passed and repassed over the dog, as if watching the success of his search; and as one after another the ducklings were brought to me, and struggled in my bird-bag, the distressed parent came to the ground near me, rolled and tumbled about, and so affected me by her despairs that I ordered my dog to lie down, while, with a pleasure that can be felt only by those who are parents themselves, I restored to her the innocent brood, and walked off. As I turned round to observe her, I really thought I could perceive gratitude expressed in her eye; and a happier moment I never felt while rambling in search of knowledge through the woods."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Friends Return

Avian friends are returning. The Evening Grosbeak is a common spring and summer feeder bird in my yard; I have to remind myself that they have had population declines that are quite serious - and that I am fortunate that they are so regular here.

There have been several pairs, and they are wary, but not afraid, of using the sunflower feeder right outside the kitchen window, as is this female.

And yes ... the iridescence of the Common Grackle in fresh plumage is always arresting. Don't dismiss these birds just because they are black (they're not just black) or because they can't sing. And BTW, I did several columns last spring on blackbirds. Check the archives.

Good birding!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Brigantine on Sunday

I came home from Philadelphia yesterday by way of Forsyth NWR - Brigantine. It was a couple of good hours, with a few new songbirds, but mostly the waterfowl.

First Osprey of the year flew over with a large fish. Several gulls, mostly young ones, tried to harass the Osprey and maybe shake loose the fish, but he was having nothing to do with them. This uncropped, digiscoped photo just picks up one of the gulls - which did a lot of flying about and made a lot of noise, all to no effect. (Atlantic City casinos in background.)

Below are a few photos of waterfowl which were close enough to yield decent pictures.

Small raft of about 30 Canvasbacks was certainly a treat. These are not often seen in New England.

Northern Pintails - the drake is handsome and under-appreciated, although this one appears to be getting the kind of attention a drake likes.

Hundreds (more probably thousands) of Brandt were scattered through the refuge and in the ocean waters. Many were grazing in the grasses along the refuge road.

Good birding!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Wild Duck

The Mallard is so common and so familiar that we hardly pay it any mind. Bird watchers scan right over the Mallard as they look for a “good” duck somewhere in the mixed flock of waterfowl. They see a distant group of ducks feeding in a protected cove along the coast in the winter. They lift their binoculars, see that the ducks are all Mallards, and then mutter something like, “Phooey, just Mallards.”

I am often the same way. But I also try to get birding companions to pause on the Mallard from time to time. The Mallard drake is a beautiful and handsome bird, with a stature and plumage worthy of appreciation.

The Mallard is the largest dabbling duck, twenty-three inches in length and weighing about two and a half pounds. It can be found in any wet habitat - salt marshes, woodland beaver ponds, city parks.

The famous children’s story, Make Way for Ducklings, tells of Mallards which nest on an island in the Charles River and then moved their entire brood over to Boston’s Public Gardens. The story captures one of the reasons the Mallard is so common and widespread - its adaptability. Wetlands in many places have disappeared or been reduced causing many wetland species, such as ducks, to decline in number. The Mallard has thrived because it has been able to adjust to human presence; when landscape architecture creates ponds in an urban or suburban location, Mallards can move in. Agriculture drained marshes and claimed land for planting; then watering holes were created for livestock, and Mallards adapted.

The Mallard is found throughout the northern hemisphere and is the progenitor of nearly all domestic ducks. (The Muscovy is the only other duck that has been domesticated.) Early naturalists knew the Mallard as the Wild Duck, a recognition that it was the wild counterpart of the farmyard duck. “Mallard” was used as the term for the male of the species. It was not until the early twentieth century that “mallard” was accepted as the name for the species, with the male being called the Mallard Drake.

The Oxford Book of British Bird Names traces “mallard” to the fourteenth century and in turn attributes its presence in the English language to the Normans. But it says nothing more about its meaning. American Bird Names by Ernest Choate is somewhat bolder; Choate goes from the Normans back to the Romans and their Latin, and derives the name from the term for “male,” plus an intensifying adjective, “-ard,” meaning “bold, hardy.” Unfortunately, “mallard” as a “bold male” is not the real meaning. Choate says that mallard “generally has a pejorative sense as in drunkard, dullard, and sluggard. The suffix seems to fit well the mallard male who exemplifies in this relations with the female a singular concentration on the physical union alone. The female, after she is snatched bald-headed, gets the eggs to hatch, the ducklings to raise, and her drake’s name.”

Alas, that’s true. As handsome as the Mallard drake is, his good looks serve only one purpose; to convince a female that his genes will be good for her offspring, if she can manage to successfully incubate, brood, care for, and raise them. In his wonderful nineteenth century prose, John James Audubon described the Mallard’s courtship thus: “The males, like other gay deceivers, offer their regards to the first fair one that attracts their notice, promise unremitting fidelity and affection, and repeat their offers to the next they meet ... He plays around this one, then around another, until the passion of jealousy is aroused in the breasts of the admired and flattered .... Many tricks are played by Ducks, good reader, but ere long the females retire in search of a safe place in which they may deposit their eggs ....”

The children’s story about the Boston ducklings implies that Mr. & Mrs. Mallard are a devoted couple, but if you remember the story, it is Mrs. Mallard who in fact does all the work, including leading her ducklings through the dangerous streets of Boston to the Public Gardens. She gets help from the Irish cops, but not from Mr. Mallard who is off somewhere doing something.

However, we should not be too harsh on the Mallard drake. His plumage evolved for sexual attraction. The plumage on the Mallard hen evolved for protection and camouflage; her drab brown appearance helps her “disappear” among the reeds, grasses, and mud where she makes her nest.

In addition, her young do not require a great deal of care. The hatchlings are precocial, relatively well-developed when they emerge from the egg. They have a thick coat of natal down. Shortly after hatching (perhaps within twenty-four hours) they leave the nest and are able to feed themselves. Her job is to help them find food. If there is not enough food where they hatched, she may lead them overland to other waters, as did the Boston Mrs. Mallard.

Her job is also to help them avoid danger - hence, the familiar line of ducklings which follow her about, sometimes disappearing into the pond reeds when something disturbs her sense of safety. Raising young is far less demanding for Mrs. Mallard than for almost any Mr. & Mrs. Songbird.

A colorful male and a drab female (called sexual dimorphism) is common among the ducks, and serves the same purpose among other species as with the Mallard; so we ought not be too harsh in our opinions of the Mallard drake.

As adaptable to civilization as the Mallard is, it remains the “Wild Duck” - cautious and wary. Unlike Audubon, we do not carry a gun as we wander along water’s edge or approach a pond with binoculars or walking stick. But we have all observed what this early naturalist observed: “Look at the Mallard as he floats on the lake; see his elevated head glittering with emerald-green, his amber eyes glancing in the light! Even at this distance, he has marked you, and suspects that you bear no good will toward him .... The wary bird draws feet under his body, springs upon them, opens his wings, and with loud quacks bids you farewell.”

Not many bird watchers include the Mallard in their definition of good birding. Mallards are just a part of the background scenery. But that background scenery often provides the context for the play and certainly enriches the play. From time to time we ought to take the time to appreciate the familiar.

Good birding!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The weather for today is supposed to turn, with showers likely. so I thought it would be a good idea to visit the waterfowl roost in the morning.

Highlight had to be a brief pause on a power line by an Eastern Meadowlark, which I've never seen in the lower Connecticut River Valley of Vt-NH, and which is rarely reported by anyone.

As for the waterfowl - Not! Empty. Virtually nada - a few ring-necks, blacks, mallards, hoodies, and goldeneyes.

In the farmland on the Vermont side south of Vernon Dam, there were many waterfowl grazing the fields and in some ponds, including 8 snow geese, green-winged teals, pintail, woodies.

Many of the same species were on the West River in Brattleboro and in the cornfield behind the marina. Also, three Snow Buntings.

Waterfowl Roost - Hinsdale

As the ice goes out of the Connecticut River, the waterfowl move north. A favorite roosting place is just north of the Vernon Dam. Best viewing is from the NH side in Hinsdale - about a twenty minute walk in. Its a place where the hard core birders gather every mid-March. When I was there yesterday, there were five other birders; I knew them all.

Thousands of Canada Geese are using the roost, and at times the racket can be heard at a distance. They are feeding on farms in Vernon just south of the dam. Ducks are just beginning to show up. There have been a few (max 2 dozen) Common Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, pintails, woodies, blacks, Mallards, Ring-necks, 1 Cackling, 2 Snow Geese, Common & Hooded Merganser. Last week I saw Canvasback drake & Red-breasted Merganser at Turners Fall, and Green-winged Teal have been reported grazing the farmland. Ross' Geese have been reported in Northhampton, and were watched for yesterday. But the Canadas predominanted yesterday. This photo shows but a tiny fraction of the geese. The ice edge is still quite far from the bluff.

A single Greater White-fronted Goose was present. This cropped digiscoped photo is not very good, but the goose is identifiable in the center.

The Hinsdale eagles lost their nest last year. They may have taken over an old Red-tailed Hawk nest, but they haven't done much, if any, work on it. In previous years, they have been incubating for a week at this point in March. The nest tree (if that is where they eventually settle) is a white pine (cropped out) close to where this photo was taken.

Good birding!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Love among the Corvids

Yesterday (Sunday) was sunny and mild. I took my snowshoes and found a raven nest in the old granite quarry. Mother Raven appeared to be on the nest, incubating. I plan on returning when the snow melts, and the climb is less hazardous, to watch the nest.

Mud season is in its full, semi-liquid glory. The road to the Black Mountain trail was so bad, I decided I should stay off of it, even though I have four wheel drive on the truck. Why make it worse for the people who must drive the road?

So instead, we returned home and walked Augur Hole Road looking for the shrike that a neighbor called me about. No shrike, but the crows were into their love season - calling and displaying - turned on by the Spring hormone rush.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Barton's Cove - Saturday

Avian signs of Spring are starting to show. First Red-wings were at the feeders on 2/26, again on 3/5, and yesterday were all along the Connecticut River. Also big flocks of robins and occasionally some grackles - although I had my first feeder grackle on 2/5. I'm getting antsy to get out, so yesterday I made my second trip to Turners Falls, MA, to check the later afternoon gull roost. For a roost of 200-300 gulls, there is a considerable variety mixed among the common Ring-bills, Herring, and Greater Black-backed. The Slaty-backed Gull did not appear a week ago, and was absent yesterday (or at least not seen yesterday while I was there.)

But present was this hybrid Glaucous x Greater Black-backed Gull which was identified by a couple of the Bay State's (premier, top, expert) peripatetic birders.

Sub-adult Glaucous Gull ...

Among the Ring-bills, a single pale adult Iceland Gull - apparent Iceland, as opposed to a Kumlien's Gull, which may be an Iceland subspecies, or an Iceland x Thayer's hybrid, or a species in its own right - all of which even the best birders have a contentious time distinguishing. A week ago I listened to the ID dispute; yesterday I just took Hector's word for it.

About two dozen drake Ring-necked Ducks put on a diving display in the open waters, while harassing the lone hen whenever they came to the surface.

And I just liked this lone Mallard who climbed onto the ice - whoa! that's cold on the tootsies!

Good birding!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Help with Bird Songs

Parents have a natural ability to embarrass and abash their teenage children. I was no exception, although my method of embarrassing was probably unusual - - and that is probably what made it so embarrassing. Like all parents, I often had to pick my daughter up from after school activities - band practice or play practice or something. There was a scheduled time for pick-up, and I was expected to be there at that time, or even a few minutes early, just in case the polar cap suddenly melted and they were dismissed early. But early never happened. The director’s watch, if it was ever consulted, was always slow. Along with many other parents, I waited, and watched as all of the students who walked or had their own transportation ambled by the parent-driven line-up of cars.

Not one to waste time, I put this idle time to good use. Twenty years ago - the time frame for this anecdote - I was trying to learn bird songs. So while waiting, I listened to one of the cassette tapes from “Birding by Ear.” One side of the cassette tape ran about thirty minutes, and if I arrived on time, I could listen to one complete side. If my daughter arrived while the tape was still running, I would be greeted a single word, full of modulation and rich in exasperation: “DaAhad!” Head down in hoped for anonymity, there might be a mumbled comment about keeping the volume down and the windows up. I guess she thought that a half hour in a closed car on a warm sunny Spring day might cook some sense into the paternal make-up.

My daughter survived; in a few years she will be creating her own embarrassments for her own children. And I continued for many years trying to hammer bird songs into my tin-eared mind. Every Spring I listened again to “Birding by Ear” (1989), and its companion, “More Birding by Ear” (1994). These two audio series (now available on CD) are designed as learning tools. Birds songs might be grouped by the mimics, by simple or two-noted songs, by whistlers or buzzers. Commentary tells what to listen for, offers mnemonics, repeats and compares. Then if your memory is adequate, you can go outside, hear a thrice-repeated song, and recognize a mockingbird, or listen to a complex finch song with a short buzz at the end and welcome the House Finch.

As digital technology has developed, many new resources have become available for learning bird songs. Last year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published “The Backyard Birdsong Guide” by Donald Kroodsma. This field guide to seventy-five Eastern and Central species has two facing pages for each bird. The text briefly describes habitat and physical description; a small map shows range. The song description is extended, understandable, readable, and interesting - much more than you will find in any field guide. Attached to the book is a digital audio module. It is easy to navigate to the sound track for each bird, and the quality of the sound is very good. This is both an arm chair learning tool, and a reasonably useful audio field guide.

There are probably other products for learning bird songs; these are the ones I am familiar with and have no hesitation about recommending.

But ... there are hundreds of additional birds in North America which are not included in these learning tools. The most comprehensive resource is the “Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs” - Eastern region with 372 species, and Western region with 551 species. These two sets are field guides. Except for a few people with exception audio memory, these are not CDs that you listen to the way you would listen to a music CD. You use these CDs when you need to hear an example of a specific bird, or compare several specific birds. You know you are in an area and habitat where you might see a Yellow-throated Warbler. So you listen to the song of the Yellow-throated Warbler, in the hope that you will hear the song when walking through a southern stand of pines. Then you begin looking through the top of the pine until you find the tiny black and white bird with a brilliant yellow throat - or until the pain of warbler neck finally sends you to the chiropractor.

CDs are a quantum improvement over audio cassettes for ease of use, but they are not quick references. The Stokes bird song guides come with a booklet. You look up “Wren, Carolina” in the index. You turn to page 41 and find Carolina Wren. It tells you that Carolina Wren is track 81, and at the bottom of the page you see that the Carolina Wren is on Disk 2. Then you load Disk 2 in your car’s CD player or your portable CD player, and find track 81. It is cumbersome, but it works. The Stokes audio field guide has assisted me on many occasions, usually in the car, although occasionally I have carried the CD set, a portable CD player, and a speaker into the field.

When I was in Arizona in January, I went looking for a vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler in a remote canyon. Other birders were also looking for the bird. In a strategy session, someone asked what its song is like. Another birder pulled out a slim electronic gadget, and in a few seconds, played the song. The other birders seemed matter-of-fact about his gadget, and I did not want to be the dumb Easterner. So I waited until I got back home to research the gadget.

And here’s what I found - an Apple iPod, software from birdJam, and the Stokes bird song guides. You buy the software and install it on your computer. You put all the bird songs into your computer using iTunes. The birdJam software organizes the songs. Then you connect your iPod to your computer and - bingo! - you can find any bird song in a few seconds. (Or, you get the iPod from birdJam with everything already loaded for you.)

I just turned on the iPod and in twenty seconds, I was listening to the Yellow-throated Warbler (and yes, I know the photo is an American Redstart). Not only is the whole thing cool, but very useful and useable.

In spite of the snow that is falling as I write, and all visual evidence to the contrary, Spring is approaching. The birds are beginning to sing, and within weeks our neighborhoods will be full of their songs. The entire bird watching experience is enhanced - exponentially - when you can also identify birds by their songs. It is not easy to learn, but there are good tools that can help. Thanks to some of the latest technology, we now have audio field guides available that are as user-friendly as the visual field guides.

Good birding!


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