running on water

Watching ducks and swans take off from the mostly unfrozen lakes the other day, I was impressed with how important those big, webbed feet are in keeping the birds’ bodies up near the surface of the water.  For example, a light-bodied, male Hooded Merganser “ran” on the water less than 50 feet before it was air-borne.

male hooded merganser running on water

The merganser’s feet barely touched the water surface as its rapid wingbeats lifted it into the air.

These small diving ducks weigh only 1-2 lb, so getting air-borne from the water surface is less of an impressive achievement.  However, Trumpeter Swans, the heaviest bird in North America, weigh 20-30 lb, and lifting those big bodies into the air requires the combined effort of both feet and wings.

trumpeter swans running on water

Initially, it looks like a lot of splashing without much lift taking place.

trumpeter swan running on water

Their bodies are so close to the water on take-off, they can’t utilize their powerful wing down-stroke for lift, so the large surface area of the feet really is essential in pushing the bird up.

trumpeter swan running on water

Even as the bird begins to lift above the water surface, it still can’t use the down-stroke for lift;  the feet continue to propel the bird upward.

And those are some really big feet aiding the launching effort.  Swans rarely show off those big appendages that are so useful in water take-offs, as well as digging up the bottom sediment while they forage.

trumpeter swan landing-

Coming in for landing with webbed feet fully extended to brace for impact…

The birds with probably the longest required take-off pathway from water are the loons.  With relatively short wings and legs placed far to the rear, loons need two to three times the distance for take-off that ducks do, and as they take-off, they too appear to be skipping along the water surface — or even hydroplaning.

loon running on

A Common Loon (or Northern Diver) in mid-take-off (photo by

The true masters of “running on water”, however, have to be the Western Grebes, whose courtship dance is a synchronized ballet of movement across the water, all performed without a single wingbeat, paddling with just their feet in completely upright posture.  A clip from David Attenborough’s Life of Birds shows this incredible feat the best.

odd couples

When they’re not competing for food or space (nest holes, etc.), different species of birds sometimes pair up in odd couples, seemingly coexisting without much ado.  It’s as if they either don’t recognize their differences or don’t care about them.  Hmm…wonder if there is a lesson there for us?

Northern Pintail-American Wigeon

A couple of Northern Pintail and American Wigeon males swam around together in a shallow lake near Brownsville, Texas last January.  Ducks often form rafts of mixed species when they flock up on their wintering grounds.

lazuli bunting-black-headed grosbeak

A Lazuli Bunting and a Black-headed Grosbeak are perfectly happy to share the bird feeder.  These distinctly different looking species (both brightly colored males) are both members of the Cardinal family and they overlap in both their breeding ranges and their wintering areas.

But where there is competition for food or nesting areas, aggressive threats or attacks often ensue, even between individuals of the same species.  Close proximity is not tolerated, and everyone gets hyperactive and flighty.  It’s not a lot different than what happens in human societies living in crowded conditions.

Red-winged blackbirds

Red-winged blackbirds engage in all-out battles with each other over monopoly of a food source.

harris hawk- crested caracara interaction

The postures exhibited in this interaction between an adult Harris hawk and a juvenile Crested Caracara tell the story: the hawk owns this meat, and open-beak threats make the caracara back off in submission.

Will it be competition or coexistence between two species or two individuals — odd couple or fierce combatants?

Getting to know you…

“getting to know all about you” — that’s what we often see in the synchronized displays of paired birds that mate for life.  It’s more commonly seen in the spring resurgence of pre-breeding behaviors, but often, mated pairs renew their bond in the fall before migrating to warmer climates with open water.

Trumpeter Swans pairs exhibited their neck bowing and chest-to-chest-wing flap and trumpet greetings with each other on Lake Vadnais yesterday with gusto.

Trumpeter Swan courtship behavior

Neck bowing behavior, up and down, from fully extended to completely bowed, repeated several times, both while swimming in parallel and while facing each other.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Because these birds often don’t breed until they are 4-6 years old, cementing their partnership early is integral to their eventual breeding success, in defending their nest territory as well as protecting their offspring, which single individuals cannot do alone.  Their synchronized neck bowing behaviors occasionally escalated to more vigorous displays of wing flapping and chest bumping (kind of remniscent of football players in the end zone after a touchdown).

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Muted trumeting accompanied the wing flap face-off between these partners.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

But then, one swan seemed to be trying out a couple of different partners as it first performed the neck bowing sequence with one individual and then took-off flying and pursued another individual, bowing and wing-flapping with it, and then eventually settling down to feed side by side.  I wonder if this is the equivalent of swan dating?

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Swan in the lead with partner #1, performing the head bowing behavior as they swim

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Suddenly the lead swan takes off, trumpeting, chasing another swan into flight. Huge webbed feet paddling against the surface of the water help these large-bodied birds get aloft.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Once landed in the same area, vigorous wing-flapping and trumpeting occurs for several seconds, following by neck bows, and finally feeding side by side.

I might have thought this was one male chasing another, except for the behavior that followed.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Just another day in the lives of the Trumpeter Swans, even if confusing to us human observers.

Another California memory

Sometimes small sparrow-like birds are difficult to identify because they are rather non-descript or resemble a number of different species, and so birdwatchers call them LBJs (little brown jobs).

california towhee

A California Towhee sitting very uncharacteristically in a tree.

The California Towhee might be a plain brown, but it is larger and stouter than an LBJ, and usually recognizable by its habit of scratching through the litter by jumping back and forth with both feet.  It’s a bird of the understory, meaning way under and into the interior of low shrubs, and usually pretty well hidden from view.  So, it was a little unusual to see a towhee perched in a tree in full view, and completely at ease with me encroaching on its space.

california towhee

If only the male hummingbird was as patient as this bird…

California Towhees are found only along the coast of California and the Baja peninsula in Mexico, where they thrive in the dense chaparral scrub, hunting seeds, fruits and berries, insects, spiders, and whatever other edibles can be found there.  The berries of Poison Oak are a favorite item in their diet; in fact, they like poison oak vegetation so much, they often nest in the thickest branches of the plants, perhaps feasting on the berries at the same time.

california towhee

More often you find California Towhees scratching the surface near grassy areas where they can pick up fallen seed and perhaps an insect or two.  Their long tail and smooth, all-over brown coloration make them easy to identify — not an LBJ.

And so another California visit comes to an end, and I’m back in the freezing northland again, awaiting the next snow storm.  Sigh…

The teaser

The resident (and very territorial) male Anna’s Hummingbird in my mother-in-law’s backyard proved to be quite a challenge to photograph. He always sat with his back to me, singing his scratchy sing-song, and he preferred to hover in front of me with his back to the sun.  In fact he hovered above and around me for just seconds before dashing away to hide in the middle of the bottlebrush shrub.  What a tease!  You have to be really quick on the trigger (shutter) to catch these guys in prime light, and there were many more misses than successes with my attempts.

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Just passing through

As I look back at previous years’ blog posts around this time of the year, I always find a few posts about duck migration.  And once again, right on schedule, huge rafts of Common Goldeneye and Ring-necked Ducks have taken up residence on Lake Vadnais in St. Paul, to fatten up before completing the rest of their migration south.

raft of ducks

The gigantic raft of floating ducks stretches down the center of the lake more than 100 yards.

This particular reservoir seems to be a favorite stop-over for these ducks, and they usually stay until the freezing weather causes the lake to ice up.

Ring-necked ducks

Ring-necked ducks mill around in circles, dabbling and diving.


You rarely get to see why these ducks are so named — for the chestnut ring of feathers at the base of the neck.


Male Ring-necked ducks outnumber their females by a large margin; where do all the females go on migration?


Small flocks of Common Goldeneye, with their distinguishing white cheek patch and bright golden eyes float separately from the Ring-necked ducks.  Dark-headed males seem to outnumber brown-headed females 10 to 1.

Ring-necked ducks

Some small groups that break off of the long raft of ducks swim purposefully (somewhere) in V-formation.

Ring-necked ducks

And some just streak through mirror-calm water in a straight line.

canvasback duck

There’s always one that has to be different — a lone male Canvasback swam toward a distant group of Goldeneyes, but they ignored him.

Seven swans a-sleeping…

A scene from across Lake Vadnais in St. Paul called to me to get closer and try to photograph the group of Trumpeter Swans.

trumpeter swans

I haven’t seen any Trumpeter Swans up close since last winter, and here they were basking on the shore of one of the lakes that supply water to St. Paul.

So I hiked around the lake trying to figure out where on the trail they might be. However, it was bow season for deer that day, and so I couldn’t stray too far off the path into the woods.

By the time I found them, this is what I saw:  seven swans a-sleeping (well, one was alert).

trumpeter swans-2

It must have been a busy morning, and I’ve never seen them a bunch of swans so completely sacked out.

However, road noise woke a couple of them up, just for a few moments.

trumpeter swans

trumpeter swans

and then right back to napping.

I guess when you’re as big as an adult Trumpeter Swan, you don’t worry too much about photographers creeping up near by.  Even the Mallards were unperturbed.

Birds in Art

On the road again, we stopped off in Wausau, Wisconsin to visit the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum and see their amazing exhibition of birds in art.  This place is definitely worth a weekend field trip, and in addition to all of the paintings, carvings, and sculptures to marvel at, there are classrooms and materials for creating your own bird art (primarily for kids).  A small sample of the pieces…

Outdoors, pieces are scattered around the extensive gardens.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

15 foot tall Sandhill Cranes greet you by the parking lot.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A life-size sculpture of an ostrich

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Turkeys in bronze.  I like the way the bronze yields the same iridescence that turkey feathers do.

Indoors, smaller sculptures and paintings draw you over for a closer look.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

One of several rooms in the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

Metal sculpture of a Kestrel. It’s minimalist in construction, but captures the most important characteristics of the bird that make it instantly recognizable.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

A Bittern carving in tupelo wood and painted with acrylic, and amazingly life-like.

Bird art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson art museum, Wausau, WI

The photo doesn’t do justice to this amazing wood sculpture of two skuas chasing a tern. There are no external supports for the free-flying forms, and the wings only touch in one small area. Instead the support is internal within the sculpture somehow.

how to eat a juniper berry

The fall harvest season is on:  it’s time to pick pumpkins and apples, the last of the field corn and soybeans; and if you’re a bird and you like fruit, it’s time to feast on the berries of the eastern red cedar, commonly known as juniper.  Actually to be entirely correct, these “berries” are actually just fleshy cones that surround a few seeds within.  They are covered with a waxy coating, which is also digestible if a bird has the right pancreatic enzymes to break it down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries

Yellow-rumped Warblers love these juicy “berries”, gobbling them up whole.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-3

Sometimes this large round nugget is a little hard to choke down, though, and the bird continually adjust the berry’s position in its mouth before swallowing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-5

Dark blue ones are the ripest, green ones the least ripe, and the birds seem to be quite choosy about which ones they take.  There are so many berries within reach, but this bird needs to stretch upside down to get the perfect one.

Robins eating juniper berries-4

Robins joined the feast, with three or four birds all foraging within a few feet of each other.

Robins eating juniper berries-2

Being a much larger bird than the warbler, the robins had no trouble downing the berries, one after the other.

Robins eating juniper berries-6

Robins toss their heads back as they swallow, and occasionally lose the berry in the process.

Catbird and juniper berries

A couple of catbirds got into the action as well, but they preferred to consume their berries in private, away from the camera lens.

Juniper berries are the only fruit/spice from conifers we use in cooking, and of course they give gin its characteristic flavor.  Beneath the waxy coating, green pulpy flesh surrounds a few seeds.  Fruit-eating birds normally quickly separate the pulp from the seeds in their gut, digesting the sugary pulp and converting it to fat stores rather quickly.  They then excrete the seeds as they fly off to other foraging areas, thus helping the plant spread into new locations.

But seed-eating birds might have a different strategy…

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-3

This female cardinal was systematically picking off berries and crushing them between her mandibles, squeezing the pulp and then discarding it.

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-5

It’s hard to tell whether she discards the pulp to get at the seeds, or discards the whole mass after squishing out berry juices.  

Seed-eating specialists probably have stronger gizzard muscles  that can crush the seeds to extract their nutrients, and seeds typically have higher fat and protein content than the sugary, pulpy mass that surrounds them.

Whatever the strategy, juniper berries provide a useful resource for migratory as well as non-migratory birds in the fall.

Mr. Not-so-beautiful

This is the time of year we see beautiful and dramatic color changes in the vegetation, but that is just one of many fall transformations.  Gaudy male ducks that shed those brilliant colors right after donating their sperm to the next generation last spring and became pale, cryptic versions of their previous selves have recently begun the transformation back to splendid technicolor.  It’s like a before and after makeover for Mallard Ducks at the local reservoir this week.

molting mallard ducks

In the summer, male Mallards look just like their females, with mottled brown plumage that blends in nicely with the dappled shade in which they spend the day.  The male of this pair (in the back) is just beginning to acquire the lustrous green feathers that will eventually cover his entire head.

Most ducks undergo two feather molts during the course of one year:  one in the spring/summer after breeding in which they replace all of their feathers, including flight feathers (resulting in the basic/female-type plumage); and one in the fall/winter in which they replace just the body feathers to regain the colors of the breeding (nuptial) plumage.

mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark

Mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark (Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2011).

This process of feather replacement ensures that birds acquire a new set of flight feathers before making short or long-distance migrations in fall or spring. More importantly, it ensures that gaudy male ducks, who would be conspicuous targets for aerial predators (like Bald Eagles) can protect themselves with better camouflage while they are flightless and molting a completely new set of wing feathers.

molting mallard ducks-

He’s sort of an ugly duckling at this stage of feather replacement, hence Mr. Not-so-beautiful…

Fueling this feather replacement not only demands additional energy intake per day, but a higher quality of protein in the diet, and so ducks will start feeding on more invertebrates and less pond scum, as they drop old feathers and grow in new ones.  It has been estimated that ducks need to ingest about 100 grams of protein to replace the 60+ grams of body feathers during a whole body feather molt.  That means they need to ingest more than 3 grams of protein per day over the 30 day molting period, and that translates to about 31,000 invertebrates eaten over the month!!!, according to the folks at Ducks Unlimited.


Soon, the local ponds and lakes will have congregations of brightly colored males swimming around the few females (lower right corner) in attendance.


And as spring rolls around again next year, the brightly colored male Mallards will begin to play “who’s the prettiest” again.