Monday, March 23, 2009

Waterfowl ID

After the rockin' good time on Friday night, we had a late (for birding events) start on Saturday with a 10am seminar by Kenn Kaufman on waterfowl identification. When I spoke with Kenn during a break on Friday night, he said he hadn't finished preparing his talk yet, but it sure seemed thorough and polished to me. I thought I would share with you some of the tips and tricks that he imparted to us.

First of all, we need to define "waterfowl." While to many of us, waterfowl includes any bird on the water, the correct use of the term is limited to birds in the family Anatidae, the swans, geese, and ducks. Loons, grebes, and coots, while also found swimming around on the surface of the water, are not true waterfowl. This is something that my mentor, Jay Stenger, really stressed when I first began to study
waterfowl. So, when someone asks what waterfowl species you saw, you will be corrected if you include Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot on your list.

Next, you need to know that geese and swans are "good citizens." The male and female are very similar in appearance, they work together to raise the young, and there are few seasonal changes in plumage.

Ducks, on the other hand, are more difficult. There are more of them, for one thing, and their plumage changes with both gender and season. With ducks, the females are solely responsible for raising the young, which accounts for their more drab appearance. Most beginning waterfowlers have trouble with female ducks, which all look very similar. According to Kenn, when it comes to ducks, "Males are beautiful, females are confusing." He paused, then added, "That is true for more than just ducks!"

Kenn spent most of his time with the ducks, because of their beauty and the confusion associated with them. I'll start with geese and swans, because they are easier.

You all know this guy, the Canada Goose. Want to be labeled as a waterfowl newbie? Slip up and call it "Canadian Goose" which I did once by accident . You will get pitying looks at best and snarky comments at worst from other birders. (Not from me, you understand.)

All up and down the causeway at Magee Marsh, Canada Geese were pairing up, like these two. The male was very protective of his fiancee, honking and glaring at me.

The other goose species Kenn spent some time on was the Cackling Goose. I have yet to see one of these "miniature Canadas," so no photos. When it comes to distinguishing the two species, Kenn gave us two tips. First of all, if you think you have a Cackling Goose, then you don't. Like I always say about Purple Finches, you'll know one when you see one. The big clue is the cute factor. Cackling Geese are mallard-sized, substantially smaller than either the giant or the inland subspecies of Canadas, and their bills are tiny, just 25mm (1 inch) long. With big dark eyes in a small face and a little button "nose" of a bill, Cackling Geese are just plain cute.

In Ohio, we have three swan species. The Mute Swan, with its classic swan shape of curved neck and long tail, was introduced to the US from Europe to decorate private ponds and waterfowl collections. Because of its bullying nature, it is despised by birding purists. It is still a gorgeous bird, and I'm sorry that the ones I saw were beyond my camera range. Look for its orange bill with a black knob at the base to help you distinguish the Mute Swan from the equally large Trumpeter Swan.

Trumpeters are rare. Most of those in Ohio are released from captive breeding programs, or are the immediate descendents of released birds, and thus are not "countable" on your Ohio list. Rules, schmools, I counted these gorgeous creatures on my personal trip list. I saw two different pairs, one at Otttawa NWR and the other at Magee. Of these four birds, only one bore the classic "field mark" of a yellow, numbered collar around its neck. Sadly, my digiscoped photos were terrible. I was hoping to show you the actual field mark, a large, thick black bill that blends into a black mask at the lores (spot between the eye and the bill.) I got to hear the trumpeting sounds which give these birds their name as a pair took off. Stunning!

Tundra Swans should be your default swan along Lake Erie in March as they migrate back north to their breeding ground, which is in the tundra, of course. Here is a digiscoped photo of a pair of Tundra Swans. I hope that if you click it to enlarge it, the photo will show you the identifying field mark, a yellow spot at the lores.

The Tundra Swan is smaller than the Trumpeter, a field mark which only helps if the two obligingly pose next to each other. Their voices can be a key to ID. Trumpeters trumpet. Tundra Swans sound like Sandhill Cranes to me. In fact, I was expecting to see a flock of cranes when we turned the corner at the end of one of the dikes we were walking at Ottawa. Instead, we were greeted by this -

Every white spot in that photo is a Tundra Goose. And, that wasn't even all of them. I have never seen so many geese in one spot before. Awesome!

Here's a view of the habitat at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. A series of ponds and dikes, the water level at Ottawa is managed for ducks.

Leaving waterfowl, I wanted to point out that Ottawa and the surrounding area is also a haven for Bald Eagles. In two days, I saw 11 individual eagles, ranging from a first year adolescent to adults soaring high in the sky. We saw a young (third year?) eagle perched in one tree facing off against a Red-tailed Hawk in a raptor stare-down and an adult on its nest. And, we saw another raptor in an eagle's nest, one who usurped the nest from its original owner.

Can you see the Great Horned Owl in the nest above?

How about now, in this blurry enlarged image?

Well, she could certainly see us. I could practically feel the heat coming from her laser eyes, as she glared down on the interlopers who dared to walk within a hundred yards of her nest.

More to follow ...


Susan Gets Native said...

Dang. That GHOW chose the Mansion-Sized digs!

I'll take swans....female ducks make my brain squishy.

denapple said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip. Wish I could have been there too. I'm like you, if it swims, it's waterfowl to me.

NCmountainwoman said...

Nice summary of some important points. And great pictures.