Posts Tagged With: waterfowl

Ring-necked why?

Every birder in North American asks the same question: If the duck has a bright ring around its bill, why is it called Ring-necked?


I don’t see any ring there!

I’ve heard lots of theories – it’s a hunter’s bird-in-hand fieldmark, some other duck was already called Ring-necked – but no one seemed to know the truth. Until now!

In an article in Birding, the ABA journal, Rick Wright solves the mystery*. He dug through obscure volumes in dusty libraries until he found Edward Donovan’s early-1800s description of the type specimen, the bird from which the species description is derived, and discovered…

…nothing about the bill. The hard-to-see chestnut collar is the only good distinguishing mark. So what happened to Donovan’s duck’s bill? He painted and described the bird from a poultry market specimen, not a live bird, so it might have been damaged either in hunting or on its way to market. Not knowing any different, he depicted it with a plain blue-grey bill.

Here it is, in all its dull-beaked splendor:


Poor Edward Donovan. Scoffed at for centuries as fabulously unobservant, vindicated at last.

Last week at Vischer Ferry, I saw something amazing. A small flock of Ring-necks preened and displayed close to shore and in perfect light. And believe it or not, one male with his head held high and neck fully extended actually had a clearly-visible contrasting dark red collar between the glossy purple neck and his black chest. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime sight, and of course I didn’t have my camera!


Top photo via WikiMedia Commons.

*Birding, Vol. 46, May/June 2014. Sadly, visible only to ABA members.



Categories: Bird photos, vischer ferry, waterfowl | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Losing my mojo

I’m finding it difficult to keep up my motivation for the year’s end. There’s been a lot of RealLife™ going on. No club trips scheduled, I’ve missed a month of Thursday Birders, and (believe it or not!) I’m getting a bit tired of birding alone. No winter raptors, no winter finches. I hope the upcoming Christmas Bird Count season can shake me out of the doldrums.

I try to console myself with some Green-winged Teal.


Oh well — it’s a balmy 26F with no gale force winds, so before the scheduled mid-week snowpocalypse I’m off along the rivers hunting for anomalous gulls.  It’s the only game in town now!


Categories: Bird photos | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Red-necked Grebe-inspired lifer dance!

It’s getting harder to add life birds to my list when I don’t GO anywhere. Red-necked Grebe is one reliable migratory visitor I should have had a while ago. I’ve almost seen them several times — usually a glimpse of tail feathers as they dive. So I was happy to put up with gusty wind and drizzle this morning to watch one cruise around a roadside pond while rush-hour traffic streamed by into Troy and Albany.

I’m not sure if the brownish tint on its neck is a vestige of the rich chestnut breeding plumage, or an artifact of bad light. At any rate, you can see the pointy-headed look and yellow bill that are diagnostic.

Often it came up with a small fish in its beak before submerging for the next course. You can sort of see here how far back the feet are set, like a loon’s. The species name, Podiceps, literally means ‘butt foot’.  Although they’re powerful swimmers their feet are not webbed, but lobed.


I hope it sticks around until a sunny day so I can get better pictures, or at least watch it in comfort.

And that’s life bird #290ish, NYS bird 262, and year bird #208. Onward and upwards!

Categories: Bird photos, Life bird! | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Goose egg

It feels to me this fall has been very low on waterfowl. Maybe I’m rushing the season but we haven’t had the big flocks yet that I expect in November. I’ve seen a fair number of duck etc. species, but they move through quickly, a few Long-tailed Ducks or Black Scoters, gone the next day.

The Canada Geese aren’t coming through in thousands yet, which makes scanning for the ever-elusive Cackling Goose easier. Not that it makes one easier to find… The best I could do today was yet another runt.


Small, but lacking the ‘cuteness factor’.

Dig the synchronized Dr. Evil and Mini-Me pose:


You know it’s a slow day birding when you’re reduced to trying to turn a House Sparrow into something exciting. Give the bird its due, this is the spiffiest young Passer domesticus I’ve seen in ages.


Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, upriver | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

One of these birds is not like the others…

Can you tell? Hint: these are all Goldeneye. The brown-headed birds are (probably*) all female and immature Common Goldeneye, and all but one of the black-and-white birds are male Common Goldeneye. That one exception…

Do you see the one that doesn’t match, a visitor from the far north and west?

That’s a male Barrow’s Goldeneye, life bird and NYS Species #255! After striking out twice last weekend, I was lucky that the bird was still hanging around this morning. So after errands we headed back upriver hoping third time was the charm. I was beginning to despair when the river looked nearly birdless, but then a good flock of waterfowl moved in and at last (with help) we were able to pick him out of the crowd. We spent the pleasantly springlike afternoon enjoying the ducks’ courtship performances.

Despite their best yodeling, the ladies did not look impressed.


Look at that beautiful eye! It’s obvious where they get their name.

Goldeneye are diving ducks, so sometimes just as I was getting the camera on them they’d do this:

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A Song Sparrow affirmed that spring really is coming, and he just had to sing about it!





*One sharp-eyed birder spotted one female with more yellow on her beak — probably a female Barrow’s. I was happy enough to be able to pick out the male!

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, Life bird!, New bird, Rara avis | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Today’s wandering

My chauffeur and I got a late start today, and it was nearly 3:00 when we reached Blockhouse Park in Stillwater in search of a male Barrow’s Goldeneye, an infrequent winter visitor. After scanning the water for nearly an hour in a chill wind that made it feel much colder than 30º, we gave up. Of course I checked my email at home to learn the bird had been half a mile upriver… it never occurred to me that the water would be open above the spillway. Oh well!

On the way home we stopped at the Crescent Hydro plant in search of another of my target birds. The Red-breasted Merganser was much more cooperative!



Love that glowing red eye and spiky hairdo.

As it was getting dusky, the resident young peregrine treated us to a low flyover and landed on a pylon to groom. Its feathers looked damp and disheveled. I wonder if it had taken down some prey on wet ice.





Yeah maybe I’ll try for the Barrow’s again tomorrow, what do you think?


Categories: Bird photos, Field trip | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Duck duck no geese.

Yay, I got out for a bit of birding today! Most local reports were coming from the Mohawk so we headed out to cover the Cohoes -to-Crescent run.

There were not large numbers of waterfowl, but a nice variety. The usual Mallards and Common Mergansers appeared wherever the water was open. The best spot was by the Crescent hydropower plant, where this flock of mixed Aythya ducks (plus one odd fellow) gathered.

I’m going to do my best on ID here. Correction welcome!


The leftmost bird is a female Canvasback. They’re pretty uncommon around here. Next are two Redheads and three Scaup sp? Leading the pack, with the white band near the tip of his bill, is a Ring-necked Duck.


The ones with red heads are Redheads (duh), and the white-sided ones I’m hazarding are Greater Scaup, because they’re a really clean white, while the almost-identical Lesser Scaup is a bit grayer. If you look closely, one duck in the middle has a bit of white on its face above the bill — that’s a female Scaup sp. Front left is the Canvasback.


Aythya ducks at rest, and here comes the odd man out. Cruising towards the flock is a very handsome male Long-tailed Duck.


Isn’t he a beauty? You’ll see his eponymous tail in the next picture.



The Canvasback is in the center of the flock here. Her long neck is a good field mark.


Quiz time! How many species here?



The fifth bird from the left might be a Lesser Scaup. I wish I could be sure, because the we’d have all five local Aythya species in one small flock.


They were quite distant by now.


And where were the gulls today? I was hoping to see Iceland and Glaucous but we only had the three year-round species, and not many of them. The ice here above the spillway is usually wall-to-wall squawking squabbling gulls. At least three Bald Eagles wandered around setting up the few gulls present.


“What am I, chopped liver?”

Also seen but not photographed, three circling Black Vultures! And if the first vulture isn’t a sign of spring, I’d like to know what is.

OK, since you’re obviously dying to know, the local Aythya ducks are Greater and Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked, Redhead, and Canvasback. In that order, Aythya marila, affinis, collaris, americana, and valisneria. The Long-tailed Duck rejoices in the name of Clangula hyemalis.

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, First of season, Rara avis, scenery | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

The New Toy

Things are quiet at Kestrel Hill this time of year. I’m prepping for Christmas Bird Counts — if you need me on the next four Saturdays, sorry, I’ll be somewhere on the road driving veeerrry slowly. The feeders are stocked for Project Feederwatch. And somewhere out there is a Snowy Owl with my name on it…

The most exciting thing to happen recently is an addition to my toolbox. A new camera! Yes, I’ve joined the Canon SX50 collective! Recommended by birders and photographers, this is a leap up from my little pocket camera and it’s going to take time for me to learn all it’s capable of. And the way to do that is take pictures! lots of pictures!

Here’s our pond, all frosted over.


A chickadee who moved too quickly — but he was 30 feet up a tree! Great zoom!


Two things I’ve learned so far:

1. The camera doesn’t know what I want to take a picture of. Thus, numerous shots of blurry birds and crystal-clear twigs.

Also, I should wash my windows.

and 2. Timing is everything.


But I’m pretty happy with this Mute Swan, and two Common Mergansers, all at a distance that would have been impossible before.

At full zoom, I’m shaky. I have to practice bracing my arms against my torso rather than extending them as I’ve been used to do with my old camera. By warbler season, I should be ready!

Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, scenery, Tools of the trade | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Short-eared owl, 11/21/13

So there I was last night, sitting on the hood of  my car peering into the thickening dusk, looking for a owl I just KNOW isn’t going to be there. Why do I bother? Anyone else goes to this spot, the bloody birds zoop back and forth across the road like commuters running for a train. Me? Five tries, five strikeouts. Why do I even bother? Why…


Wait. Rewind.


It’s Thursday morning, so I’m getting up at the edge of dawn, layering on the thermals and scraping hard frost from the car windows. Upriver, searching for waterfowl. All quiet on the riverfront: the Canada Geese are probably all out in cornfields foraging. Up in the Washington County grasslands, only a few raptors present yet. But it’s 40F, no wind and sunny, so you don’t waste a November day like this.

Reports from Saratoga Lake suggest a chance to pad our year numbers. I haven’t often birded around there — there’s not a lot of public access to the waterfront. (That was one of the hardest things for me to adjust to when we moved up here, that I couldn’t just walk along the shore. The first thing any of us kids learned on Long Island was the High Water Mark Rule: anything below the wrack line is public property, be damned to fences and ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Doesn’t work up here…) So I get an extensive guided tour of how to sneak legal peeks at the often frustratingly-distant waterbirds, where the Purple Martins nest, and the secret password that gets you in almost anywhere. Want to know what it is?

“I’m looking for The Eagle.” Yup. No one takes you seriously if you say you’re looking for gulls or sparrows. Mention an eagle and previously suspicious people will jump out of their cars to point out the exact tree The Eagle perches in.

I pick up a Horned Grebe at the extreme edge of scope range for my year count — 212 for the state, 202 for the region!

At 3:30 I’m back at my car in Mechanicville. You know the thing about Mechanicville? It’s about halfway between home and the grasslands, where in an hour or so Short-eared Owls hunt in the winter dusk. (You thought I’d never get back to the owls, right?)

And that’s where we came in, me on the hood of the car, increasingly frustrated, almost ready to pack it in as the last light fades. Then a gliding form ghosts along a hedgerow, color almost the same faded dun as the grasses, wingbeats soft as it courses just above the brush.

It stays in sight for perhaps three breaths before vanishing into the treeline. My life look at a Short-eared Owl. At last!

(year count: 213 for the state, 203 for Region 8)

Categories: Field trip, Life lists, New bird, NYS 2013, OMG bird, Species count | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

Swan conundrum

I drove upriver today. Things were quiet, not even the big Canada Goose flocks I saw last time. But up near Fort Miller, I saw two white shapes in with a hundred geese. Much too large for Snow Geese. Mute Swans?


Three swan species inhabit North America. Mute Swans were imported from Europe, intended to decorate park ponds. They took off and became an attractive nuisance, aggressively chasing off native waterfowl and incautious picnickers. They are easy to distinguish with gracefully curved neck, wings arched over the back, and a mostly-orange beak.

The two native swans are Trumpeter and Tundra, challengingly similar at a distance. Trumpeter is a bit larger, Tundra often has a bit of yellow on the lores (the area between the beak and eye), and if the bird is calling their voices are distinctly different. But when seen from across the river? A tough call.

So I crowd-sourced it to my birding group. Opinions varied, but another birder photographed a pair of swans in the same area a few hours earlier, that were very distinctly Tundras complete with yellow spot. It seems reasonable that two swans, just a short while after, in the same location, would be the same birds, right? So tentatively, and subject to better intel, I’m saying that local species #201 is Tundra Swan. *


*And if they do turn out to be Trumpeters instead, that’s cool too. Still local #201.**


**And then there’s the debate about whether Trumpeters are “officially countable” or not. As an introduced species — or is it re-introduced? That’s a whole ‘nother question — they haven’t been breeding in New York long enough to be on the NYSOA checklist. Whatever. It’s a hella cool bird, the world’s largest waterfowl, and was effectively extinct in most of North America by the beginning of the 20th century. Breeding programs helped bring it back from the brink, and the population is showing a steady increase. They’re still troubled by habitat pressure from territorial Mute Swans, and like most dabblers are also very susceptible  to lead poisoning.


And yes, I did reach my stretch goal! How many more will I see?

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, NYS 2013, OMG bird, Rara avis | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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