Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Migration of birds of all species north and south is very different than it was a decade or two ago. That's well-documented for waterfowl in particular in a story in the most recent edition of the magazine Delta Waterfowl sends to members.
The story reports results of study of hunting statistics for the past 25 years.
“What we found,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, “was a phenomenal later shift in the harvest of migrating ducks in the mid-latitude and southern states.”
The information indicates that the birds are migrating later, although Dr. Rohwer did not come right out and say so.
He used Kansas as an example. Average harvest date for Mallards in 1961 was Nov. 7. That date shifted to Dec. 5, 28 days later, in 2008-2009. For duck species resident in those southern hunting areas, birds that would not be migrating, harvest-date patterns were unchanged.
Ducks are staying later into the fall and winter seasons in North and South Dakota, which is why harvest dates to the south are becoming later. In January 2012 a record number of ducks and geese were counted in North Dakota. The article said that lack of snow cover was the primary reason the birds had not moved south.
In South Dakota a similar situation was seen. Nearly a million birds were found during a January 2013 survey.
“Those midwinter numbers and the motivation for waterfowl to migrate south are driven by the amount of snow cover, open water, and periods of cold temperatures,” Dr. Rohwer was quoted as saying.
Is it that climate no longer pushes the ducks south at historic dates? Or, for southern hunters, is it that the ducks don’t get down to them, not having to go as far south to find open water and food (which is climate-related).
The question: Is it climate change or habitat change? Biologists believe it is both.
At Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota later migration of geese is more obvious than such for ducks. That information comes from refuge biologist William Schultze.
“Since I began working here in 1976,” he wrote in an email, “the average peak of the Snow Goose migration has shifted from late October to near mid-November.
“I see changes in agricultural practices in North Dakota and Canada as the primary reason for that shift,” he said. “One other factor that might be considered is the amount of wetlands available, at least in northern South Dakota, since the mid-1990s. The larger wetlands that remain open longer can hold a lot of ducks and geese,” he said.
Goose movement was heavy after Nov. 21 at Sand Lake, the date refuge lakes froze over. The number of Snow Geese reported on the refuge on Nov. 20 was 130,000, with 125,000 ducks and 5,000 geese estimated. Five days later the number of Snow Geese was 400, Canada Geese 3,500, ducks 18,000, and swans zero.
This photo of Snow Geese was taken at Sand Lake NWR.
Coots are easy prey this time of year, and Bald Eagles know it.
Driving through Crex Meadows Wildlife Area a couple of years ago, just after freeze-up, I discovered a patch of open water on Phantom Lake. Swimming in a pool about 40 by 10 feet were maybe two dozen coots. Coots need to run across the water to gain air speed for takeoff. The pool was short. There were nine Bald Eagles loafing on the ice nearby. I watched one rise and fly to the far end of the pool, then glide its length. The coots knew trouble when they saw it. The roly-poly dark birds jammed against the ice when they ran out of water. The force of the jam popped one of the coots out of the water onto the ice. It was helpless there, not that it mattered for long.The eagle knew exactly what it was doing — herding coots into the lunchroom. The big raptor, feet dangling, swept the luckless coot away, landing far enough from the other eagles to eat undisturbed.
A couple of days ago a South Dakota birder, on that state’s birding email list, described another eagle strategy. This bird found four coots, flew low over them, hovered, forcing a dive. It repeated its hovering until the coots were exhausted. It was no problem then to pluck a coot from the water.
The coot below was found at Rice Lake National Wildllife Refuge, north of here on Highway 65. It was running for that elusive air speed. I took the photo from a very loud, very fast air boat used to tour Rice Lake and count the Ring-necked ducks that gather there by the 10s of thousands in fall migration.
BTW -- Bald Eagles can be found right now on many lakes that are partially ice-clad. On two Lake Minnetonka bays yesterday I saw seven eagles. They sit at ice edge and wait for unwary waterfowl, mostly ducks now, coots having moved on south.
The chimney that provided me with a Chimney Swift nest last year has done so again. A friend helped me Wednesday morning take photos of and then remove the nest from the chimney. That involved some gentle pry work with a spatula. These birds have adhered their nests to the brick surface just above the fireplace floor and just below the metal chimney liner. A rough surface is needed for nest placement. The birds’ saliva is the glue that holds the nest in place and together. The nest sat about 10 feet down from the chimney opening and two feet above the fireplace floor. It was easily reachable. The chimney lining is evident in the photo. We’re looking at the nest from the bottom. What appears as the bottom edge of the nest in the photo is actually the front lip of the nest. The nest was surprisingly shallow, and had a slight downhill slant. The nest projected three inches from the brick, and is four inches across. The cup that held the young birds — normally four in number — has a diameter of about two inches. That’s pretty cozy. This nest held some egg shell pieces. There was no evidence on the fireplace floor of birds ever using the chimney. Young swifts produce their waste in fecal sacs that are removed by the adult birds. The birds, their sounds first mistaken for bats, could easily be heard while the nest was active. The swifts have returned to this chimney for several years without a miss.
This story is about a marine toilet, and some birds.
Birding from a boat – pelagic birding – is quite unlike birding on land, for the obvious reasons and others.
In late September I was in California for two pelagic birding trips. The first time we cast off from Monterey, the second time north along the coast, at Half Moon Bay.
The trips I took, and have taken about a dozen times in the past, are run by Debi Love Shearwater. Shearwater, name of a family of birds, is a sea-going nom de plume, an AKA.
I like Debi. She’s a solid, buxom blonde a long braid of hair trailing from her ball cap. She’s been doing this for 36 years.
Prior to boarding the 50-foot boatw, which usually carries recreational fishermen, Debi gives birders some rules and advice.
Rule One: Don’t stand in the bow of the boat, in front of the windshield, blocking her view and that of the captain.
Rule Two: If you get seasick do not DO NOT throw up in the boat’s lone bathroom.
The room called the head – nautical for bathroom -- is three feet square and an inch or two over six feet tall. This is an ordinary accommodation on boats like this. The toilet itself is the size of a large cooking pot. It flushes by sucking loudly, then releasing a cupful of water. It is a wannabe toilet.
Seasick: a devastating nausea caused by boat motion with no cure but return to shore, something that will not happen until the trip ends, usually hours and hours away.
If you are among the unfortunate, go to the stern of the boat, Debi says, and feel better back there. Don’t be embarrassed. No one cares. No one wants to watch you throw up.
The back of the boat is no picnic ground, stomach problems aside.
Diesel engine fumes fold back over the stern. There is a deckhand there digging into a five-gallon pail of smelly chopped fish, tossing it out to attract birds. You could be sick back there or get sick back there.
Advice concerns staying upright. The ocean has waves and swells, the latter at least 10 feet deep on the second trip. The boat moves in wicked ways. Standing free of grip on some solid boat part is unwise. Grabbing a fellow birder as you lurch is ill-advised, the domino theory applying.
About two hours into this 10-hour trip Debi takes the boat’s loudspeaker to tell us that someone didn’t listen. Consequently, the head is no longer unusable. Embarrassing? The culprit had to tell Debi.
Eventually, one of the deck hands, the heroic one, cleaned up the mess. Unimaginable.
Most people don’t get sick and do hang tight, so they enjoy the birds. And there always are birds: shearwaters of several species, skuas, albatrosses, jaegers, phalaropes, murres, auklets, sometimes storm-petrels.
The albatross we saw out of Half Moon Bay was of the Black-footed species. It settled on the water beside the boat, wings folded, tail tucked, a handsome brown bird with an upright attitude.
Before I saw my first albatross I envisioned those birds as seriously large and dramatic. Some albatrosses are large, but not this species, relatively speaking.
Compactly floating beside us it looked about the size of large microwave oven. Not exactly “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
No doubt about season or temperature this morning: eight cardinals at our feeders (Sunday).
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