following Mom

A common sight in lakes and ponds this time of year is a brood of little ducklings paddling very close to their mother.

mallard hen and ducklings

A mallard hen escorts her newly hatched brood across the pond to better foraging habitat.

wood duck hen and brood

Wood duck hatchlings have to paddle fast to keep up with their mom.

Mother Duck’s large body moving around the nest was the first thing the newly hatched ducklings saw, and within a day’s time, they imprinted on her, meaning their brains became wired to follow that object faithfully until they mature to full independence.

wood duck hen and brood

Whatever mom does, the ducklings do. When it’s time to rest after hunting for bugs, the ducklings take a break with their mom.

There is a critical period for this type of “filial imprinting” to occur — usually within 24-48 hours of hatching.  Whatever large, mobile object the hatchling sees, it follows — even if it is a human.  This type of imprinting is of obvious survival value to precocial birds, those that are mobile immediately after hatching, as they learn survival skills and are protected by at least one parent.

Konrad Lorenz and imprinted geese

Konrad Lorenz, an early 20th century behavioral biologist, studied imprinting in Greylag Geese by attending to them immediately after hatching.  From then on, they followed him faithfully wherever he went.

You might wonder if imprinting only occurs in birds.  The answer is NO, but there are different types of imprinting, even in birds.  Social and sexual imprinting are key to making sure an individual associates with members of its own species.  Keith Kendrick* cross-fostered sheep and goats immediately after birth (i.e., goats mothered the lambs and sheep mothered the kids), and found that male offspring (but not females) were subsequently irreversibly attracted both socially and sexually to their foster mom’s species more than their own.

animal-imprinting-in sheep and goat (Kendrick, 1995)

Sheep and goat buddies.  From How Stuff Works.

Sort of makes you wonder about Tarzan being raised by apes…

*Kendrick et al. 1995. Mothers determine sexual preferences.  Nature 395: 229-230.

a foxy morning

What a delight to see my favorite canids lounging in my Minnesota backyard this morning.

red fox-

In addition to brief, one minute naps, there was quite a lot of scratching and grooming going on.

red fox-

And when they stopped digging at their own fleas or whatever was itchy, they groomed each other.

red fox-

red fox-

must be some good stuff inside the other fox’s ear…

I watched these two foxes for several minutes, but can’t figure out if they are a male-female pair, or two youngsters, or what.  Male foxes are usually noticeably bigger then females, and these two seem to be identical in size. They do seem a bit small and skinny, so maybe they are younger, but this year’s kits would not be this big yet, having been born in late March, and just out of their den in early May.  It’s a mystery.

red fox-

Shot through the not very clean porch window at 500 mm —

an unexpected visitor

Back when we had sunny days a couple of weeks ago, I found a lone Pelican resting at the edge of the Grass Lake marsh.  What was it doing here, all by itself?  Why was it so sedentary, just sitting for hours on the dead cattails?  I guess I’ll never know, but the bird has since disappeared.  Other visitors speculated that it was sitting on a nest — nope, I verified that when it stood up.  Some thought it might be injured and couldn’t fly away. That’s possible, since it was so sedentary, and it did look like one wing was sort of droopy.

White Pelican-

Just sitting, enjoying the early morning sun

White Pelican-

Yawning, stretching, and finding a new sitting position. No nest under its body, and I wouldn’t think the Pelican would try to nest out in the open like this all by itself.

White Pelicans, once rare here, now choose the shallow prairie pothole lakes in western and southwestern Minnesota to breed.  They have rebounded dramatically from a complete absence of nesting birds over the period from 1878 to 1968 to over 20,000 nesting pairs in Minnesota currently, largely due to the conservation and management efforts of the non-game wildlife staff in the MN Department of Natural Resources.

White Pelicans typically migrate from their winter headquarters in the gulf to Minnesota lakes in early spring (March).  It’s a welcome sight to see them in formation overhead, white bodies and wings outlined with black wing tips soaring overhead.

white-pelicans flying-

white-pelican-flying

white-pelicans-flying-

White Pelicans at Pelican Lake, Minnesota photographed in April 2014.

Pelicans are highly social and nest in large aggregations.  They live and hunt communally, using teamwork to scare up and harvest fish from the surface of the water. A single Pelican foraging for itself, like the one I found at Grass Lake, might be far less effective in gathering food.  I hope it recovered and flew off to join its friends somewhere on a distant lake.

Birds that buzz…

Two words that are usually said together:  bird song, or better yet songbirds, those usually small birds in your garden that produce the wonderful, lilting, sometimes piercing, often warbling, unique collection of notes that identifies each species.

But not all songbirds sing, or sing exclusively — some of them have adopted a buzz as part or all of their song. In fact, their soft buzzes or wheezes are remarkably similar and difficult to pinpoint when looking for that buzzing bird that you’re not really sure isn’t some sort of insect.  Why would male birds want to buzz instead of sing?

Take the Blue-winged Warbler for example; wouldn’t you assume from its name that its song would be a melodious warble, rather than a two-note “bee-buzz“?

blue-winged warbler-

A beautiful Blue-winged Warbler sitting out on the edge of the forest overlooking a prairie grassland, buzzing away.

blue-winged warbler-

A better look at the blue wing of the Blue-winged Warbler. He was little and mighty far away.

Just 20 feet away, a Clay-colored Sparrow is buzzing away, with a very similar, low frequency, raspy buzz call.

clay-colored sparrow-

Pale-colored, but with distinctive stripes on its head and face, the Clay-colored Sparrow blends in well to its usual background of dry grass.

clay-colored sparrow-

Its pink bill resembles that of a Field Sparrow, but its buzzing “song” makes it easy to identify.

Buzzing seems to be a common characteristic of “song” in grassland birds, like Grasshopper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.  So, one wonders if these birds are trying to avoid detection in prairie habitat by mimicking insects when they “sing”, or whether female birds just find buzzing particularly enticing?

It turns out that buzzing sound made with the bird equivalent of a larynx (called a syrinx), is actually quite physically challenging, and therefore could be an indicator to females of the quality of a potential mate.  German researchers* found that larger, more robust male Nightingales incorporated more buzzes in their song, and enjoyed greater attention from females than their less robust or younger competitors.

Another possible explanation for buzzing birds found in grassland habitats is that low frequency buzzing notes apparently carry long distances, and can be heard throughout and beyond the male’s territory.  Banded Wrens incorporated more buzzing notes in their early morning song that was directed toward other males in the nearby vicinity, at times before females were present.**

*Citation: Weiss M, Kiefer S, Kipper S (2012) Buzzwords in Females’ Ears? The Use of Buzz Songs in the Communication of Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos). PLoS ONE 7(9): e45057. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0045057

**Citation: P.L. Trillo and S.L. Vehrenkamp. Anim Behav. Song types and their structural features are associated with specific contexts in the Banded Wren. 2005 Oct; 70(4): 921–935. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.02.004

on the edge

Tromping around Weaver Dunes, south of Wabasha MN, for 8 hours trying to identify every bird we could find was exhausting but rewarding, and what an absolutely beautiful day to participate in The Nature Conservancy’s bird blitz on May 12.

Cape May Warbler-

First bird of the day — Cape May Warbler, high in a leafy tree (bane of photographers — the tree, not the bird)

The spring migration was running a little behind schedule, but we managed to find (and identify) 58 species (which admittedly doesn’t sound like a lot for 8 hours of work).  We explored a variety of habitats, but the best places to look were edges between shrub and forest, or prairie and forest.

Yellowrump Warbler-

Yellow-rumped Warblers outnumbered other warbler species, and thankfully posed at much lower elevations in the trees.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak-

We only saw one Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and he was quite shy about coming out in the open to show off his raspberry bib.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows were more common than the warblers, flashing their white outer tail feathers as they flew. True to their name, their song is much more of a warble than a buzz — i.e., lark-like.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows typically nest in shrubs and forage in grassy areas removed from the nest. They have the unusual habit of walking, instead of hopping.

Northern Waterthrush-

Down at the edge of a small pond, a Northern Waterthrush hunted for insects.

Northern Waterthrush-

A distinctive eyestripe and wagging tail made this large warbler easy to identify.

Brown Thrasher-

A Brown Thasher was very uncooperative about posing, and remained hidden in the dense foliage of trees in the grassy savannah.

Baltimore Oriole-

Orioles foraged high in leafy treetops, but were easy to find by listening for their characteristic song.

Gray-cheeked Thrush-

Another edge-lover found skulking among the low vegetation in the woods surrounding a pond was the Gray-cheeked Thrush, with its characteristic white eyering.

Our efforts were added to those of the birders walking other TNC properties throughout the tri-state region of MN, North Dakota, and South Dakota.  Together all observers on May 12 found over 200 different bird species, or approximately 50% of those known to reside or pass through MN on migration in May.  Not bad…it’s a nationwide competition, so we’ll see how MN bird numbers stack up with those elsewhere in the U.S.

Considering that our American birds have to navigate and survive stormy weather and drastic climate changes, glass windows and glass-covered buildings, marked habitat alterations, and depleted food supplies from all the pesticide and herbicide applications, it’s a wonder that we see the diversity that we do.

She did it!

Yes, Mother Goose did it, at least I’m going to believe she did.  Mother Goose was gone from the osprey nest platform, but there were some brand new goslings in the pond at the base of the tower at Grass Lake.  Somehow four little fluffy ducklings, looking recently hatched, may the ones that survived the plunge down to the pond and are now happily swimming around with their parents.Canada Goose family-

Canada Goose family-

Canada Goose family-

Father Goose watches protectively as a rather hungry hen munches on grass and the goslings explore dirt and possibly eat some bugs.

Canada Goose family-

Canada Goose family-

See you later…

an unusual sighting

For the past several years, a pair of ospreys have raised 2-3 chicks each year at the local marsh that surrounds Grass Lake, using a high nest platform erected specifically to entice them to breed there..

osprey-pair

The pair of Ospreys on their nest platform in June, 2016.

But this year, they must have arrived a little later than usual, because an interloper arrived first to claim the 50 foot high platform for her own nest.

canada goose-on osprey nest

It looks like Mother Goose tidied up the stick nest, before adding her own downy breast feathers to the nest cup.  Although her nest is well protected from danger of flooding on the osprey platform, it is exposed to aerial predators like Bald Eagles that might fly over.  

What is peculiar about this is that Canada Geese usually nest on land surrounded by or near the water on an elevated mound — but not this elevated!

great blue heron-and-canada geese-

While the hen incubates her eggs on her mounded nest, the gander runs protective interference and wards off potential predators or nosy herons.

Mother Goose usually sits tight on the nest, incubating her clutch of 6-8 eggs for most of a month or so, but Father Goose will take over at times so that the hen can stretch her legs and get a bit of food for herself.  Knowing how much space Canada Geese need to land on water or land, I have to wonder how good they are at making a touch down in the limited space of this nest platform.

Once the ducklings hatch, they usually move immediately into the water with their parents.

canada-goose-and-ducklings-1

It’s safer to be in the water because ducklings are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators on land.

Being nothing more than downy balls of fluff, they certainly can’t fly yet, so what will happen to the ducklings raised on an osprey platform?

Transformations

Marked transformations of the landscape and its inhabitants occur daily now in the upper Midwestern U.S., as the weather is warming up.  I took an early morning walk around the settlement ponds beyond the backyard and found quite a few changes since the week before.

backyard pond

early morning reflection in one of the ponds

The trees have leafed out, the grass is greening up nicely, and wildlife has again taken up residence there.

canada geese-

A pair of geese claimed one end of the pond as theirs — encouraging another pair to move away.

great egret-

A Great Egret fished along the shore…this is the first one I’ve seen so far this year.

great egret-

They seem to love dining on miniscule fish fry they find on the edges of the pond. The bird caught three in quick succession.

male wood duck-

Only male Wood Ducks patrolled the pond’s edges; perhaps the females are all sitting on eggs somewhere.

And of course, a symphony of Chorus Frogs added their music to the landscape.

western chorus-frog-calling

Indvidual tiny Boreal Chorus Frogs emit incredibly loud calls, and together with the other 100s in the pond, their “symphony” is deafening.

Each day brings new surprises — stay tuned for next week’s report on the pond.

another muskrat morning

It’s rare (for me) to see a muskrat out and about in the morning, but this one was not at all shy about foraging in a shallow pond right next to the road.  So, lazy me, I just sat in the car and took photos out the window.  What a set-up for nature photography!

muskrat swimming-

munching on tender new shoots

nothing like a good scratch after swimming around in stagnant water…

muskrat swimming-

the way I usually see muskrats — without heads or tails

Muskrats are excellent swimmers, with two layers of fur to protect them from getting chilled, as well as terrific lung capacity that allows them to swim underwater for 15-20 minutes at a time.  They sort of resemble a cross between a beaver and a rat, but the naked (scaly) tail is compressed side to side (vertically) rather than top to bottom (horizontally) like the beaver’s.

Despite having webbed hind feet, muskrats use their tails for propulsion while swimming, and happily chug along at 3 mph or so through their marshy homes. Presumably, the tail is also used as a rudder for steering while swimming, but then you see actions like this.

muskrat swimming-

Muskrats may swim with their tail snaking behind them, but can carry it up above their bodies as well.  Is this for leverage, while the muskrat chews on submerged vegetation?

muskrat swimming-

Swimming along, with its tail in the air.  It did this repeatedly while swimming around this small pond.

So, why does the muskrat elevate its tail while swimming — is it marking its territory, signalling other muskrats, or just waving it in the breeze??

Attitude

Chickadees are one of the most endearing birds, with their perky spirit.  Although I probably have hundreds of photos of these birds, I couldn’t resist a few shots of one that was peering into the porch window at me as I was drinking my very early morning coffee.

Black-capped Chickadee-

What a look…

I remember my kids giving me this look when they were teen-agers.