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.
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 hanging hummingbirds? Most likely juveniles too weak, too depleted of energy to hold themselves upright at the feeder. Nancy Newfield, who feeds, bands, and studies hummingbirds from her Louisiana home sent an email to answer my question.
As I wrote in this blog yesterday, these birds were seen at a sugar-water feeder at a home near Lutsen, on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I sent Ms. Newfield my question and a photo of the bird hanging from the feeder perch.
“The Ruby-throated Hummingbird appears to be a youngster. Many recent fledglings embark upon a rigorous migration before developing their full strength,” she wrote. “During migration a certain percentage of them will seriously deplete their energy reserves (fat), and become weakened, at least temporarily.”
Were we seeing the same bird on consecutive days? She doubts it. We most likely saw different migrants moving along the shore. Any bird that was hanging from the perch was having a problem finding a supply of food sufficient to continue migration.
The meadows between Lutsen and Grand Marais are filled with blooming wild flowers right now, but few that offer the nectar cup the hummingbirds seek.
Migration takes a toll on birds of all ages. “Especially during fall migration,” Ms. Newfield wrote. “These energy-deficient youngsters are the most vulnerable. They’re less able to force their way to a feeder, and are much more vulnerable to predators.”
A dominant hummingbird guarding a feeder, and driving other would-be feeders away is a common sight.
And what I saw as an attack, one hummingbird clinging to another at the feeder, stabbing or poking with its bill, and pulling feathers?
“If I’m not mistaken, most birds of most avian families will attack sick-looking individuals,” she wrote. “Perhaps this is nature’s way of eliminating the infirm and less fit.
Looking at photos taken three years ago (below) that I sent her showing an attack and a hanging bird, she wrote, “There were at least two attackers. Both appear to be male. That is just the nature of the beasts.”
So, why didn’t the exhausted bird simply drop from the perch instead of hanging there like an ornament? Ms. Newfield explained that when birds perch their feet automatically lock onto the perch. We humans must make a conscious effort to tighten a fist or curl our toes. It’s the opposite for birds. They must make the effort to release their grip. The bird would fall only when it became so weakened that it lost even reflexive muscle control.
Having seen no ducks on our pond for weeks, I was surprised Saturday morning to see a Mallard hen and six ducklings feeding in the morning shade along the far side of the water. When I told my wife of this she said, no, not Mallards, Wood Ducks. They sure looked like Mallards to me. And then I saw the Wood Duck hen with 10 youngsters. OK. Bad light. Later in the day, however, in good light, the Mallard and her ducklings returned. This is late for both species to have new families. The Wood Duck ducklings are not more than a week old, if that. They’ll mature just in time for migration. I assume that both hens lost eggs or their broods to predators, and renested. Ducks will do that. They must have caught drakes for mating just before the boys left the neighborhood; I haven’t seen a drake Mallard or Wood Duck for weeks. This is the time of year when the males molt. It renders them flightless for a few weeks. Consequently, they seek safety on quiet water to undergo feather renewal.
Sunday morning the hen Wood Duck left the pond, up and away. She was gone until late in the afternoon, an absence of about six hours. During that time her ducklings swam and fed and preened alone or in pairs. They looked very comfortable by themselves, The usual cluster of ducklings you see when they’re with their mother formed again when she returned. She splashed down, and like magic, little ducks converged from everywhere. I found it strange that the hen would leave such young ducklings alone for so long.
The Great Horned Owl chicks I've been watching are beginning to look like owls. This photo was taken Sunday morning.
There were crows and jays in the area, birds that would mob adult owls. The young birds are ignored. Perhaps they are recognized as non-threatening in this plumage.
Before the ice was off the small pond in our backyard a pair of Canada Geese showed interest in nesting here. Geese have nested on the pond in previous years. As soon as I had open water I did some repair work to the floating nest platform. The pair appeared to be settling in. Yesterday (Wednesday) a second pair of geese arrived. The fight between goose couples began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The main event lasted an hour, not that they stopped then. I heard and watched them at 11 p.m., and at 1:15 and 3 in the morning. It’s now 10:45 in the morning, and the squabbling continues into its 20th hour. We’re down to verbal exchanges, a big difference from the loud, serious, physical encounters earlier. We had chasing, biting, attempts at dunking, and much flapping of those large wings. The pairs worked together. They fought mostly on the water, but occasionally in our yard. They stopped fighting now and again for intense preening. All feathers in place once again, it was back to the battle. The resident pair has spent some time on the nest platform; I assume they are and will be the winners, although the challengers remain at the edge of the pond. It was a great photo op. (Addendum: at 6 p.m. Thursday both pair remain at the pond, awake after naps on the sun, back on the honk.)
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