Sunday, December 25, 2011

A hawk for the holidays!

Buteo jamaicensis -- Click on the picture to enlarge. 
A young red-tailed hawk has moved into Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn Heights, close enough to my home that it is almost a backyard bird. One of my readers has been watching it for a few weeks and pointed it out to me. You can see where the hawk has been perching by clicking here. Thanks Eric! I hope the hawk stays.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's Mallard Courtship Time!

The temperature was below freezing in Brooklyn last night for the first time since last winter. This morning a cold wind is shaking dry leaves on trees outside my window. Bird courtship is not the first thing that comes to mind. But if you dress warmly and go to the local park pond you will find male mallard ducks in shiny breeding plumage. They are courting females now!
The male mallard has an iridescent green head, a narrow white neck ring, a chestnut-brown breast, a black rump, light gray under-parts, and a white-bordered violet-blue speculum (the brightly colored stripe near the trailing edge of the wing). His bill is greenish yellow. The female is light mottled brown overall with a darker brown line through the eye, a dark brown streak on the crown, and an orange bill splotched with black. Males and females have dark eyes and orange legs and feet. They are about two feet long, have wings that open to about three feet, and weigh a few pounds.

Mallards begin choosing mates and forming couples as early as September and will keep it up all winter until it is time to lay eggs in spring. Groups of males gather around females and perform ritualized behaviors competitively, showing off their feathers and fitness, sometimes performing the same moves simultaneously or sequentially.

Click here to see a video of some of what they do. In the video, one male rises from the water arching his neck in a display called the grunt-whistle (he makes distinctive sounds with the posture). Two ducks in the upper right simultaneously dip their bills and raise their tails in the down-up display. Another performs the sexy tail-shake. A little brown female swims into the lower right of the picture at the end of the clip; it's all for her.

The movements are performed in just a few seconds, so knowing what to look for makes it easier to see. Here’s a link to an old scientific publication that contains drawings of eight mallard displays --  click here and then scroll down to the illustrations. A duck will often perform a preliminary head-shake or tail-shake before doing one of the more elaborate displays. Good luck peeking in on mallard sex lives!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Winter Mockingbirds

In June I wrote about a mockingbird that sang in my garden. You can see that story by clicking here. That bird was impossible to ignore as he persistently delivered loud and varied songs from a regular round of perches on each of the garden lights, a fence post, a conspicuous branch, and the antenna on top of the building. The high perches gave the singer a good view of this garden territory.

He sang in the shadow of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, competing with its constant and equally vigorous chorus of traffic noise. He and his mate raised one chick that I got a glimpse of, and maybe more that I did not see.
The northern mockingbird is a medium sized, pale grey bird, eight to ten inches long, whitish below, with a thin black bill and two wide white wing bars across each wing that flash when the bird flies. 

Today I watched an adult mockingbird move warily through the red-berried broadleaf evergreen shrub outside my window. The bird moved silently. Mockingbirds are still here, but they are not singing. They're in winter mode. Mockingbirds don't migrate; they will stay put through cold winters as far north as southern Canada.

Instead of stalking the earthworms and insects of summer, they have switched to eating dried fruits and berries. Ornamental shrubs, especially multiflora rose, provide winter fruit for them too. The birds are possessive about their shrubs. Mockingbirds are among the few birds that defend a winter territory, sometimes as a couple. Like defending a breeding territory in spring, they defend their food in winter, chasing away robins, jays, and anyone else who covets winter fruit. My condo building's garden seems to be a good spot for mockingbirds year round.

If you are giving out birdseed this winter, consider adding a few grapes and an occasional opened pomegranate for the mockingbirds -- for the sake of summer songs that can be heard above New York City traffic.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Coot Shenanigans!

The lovely tundra swan, Cygnus columbianus
The crafty Amercan coot, Fullica americana
Tundra swans breed across far northern North America and migrate south to spend the winter in big flocks along both coasts. Coots are opportunistic kleptoparasites -- they steal when it is worth their while.

A few of each were in the East Pool of the Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, NJ, when I visited at the end of November. Tundra swans are only occasionally seen there.

This swan is about to get mugged. 
One of the swans was feeding, submerging its long neck to bring vegetation up from the bottom of the shallow pool. The moment it went under, the coots rushed in to pick up bits of free food that floated up. And when the swan resurfaced, they grabbed at the food in its bill. The swan pecked at them, but it was three against one, and it ended up providing lunch for four that day.

Quick, while he's not looking! 

The Forsythe Refuge is on the Atlantic Flyway and it is always full of interesting birds. It is about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, two from New York City, and 15 minutes from Atlantic City.

P.S. This is a mute swan, Cygnus olor. Notice the orange bill with black knob -- it is not the swan I am talking about. I have never seen coots hassle mute swans. But I have seen mute swans chase other birds and fight viciously with each other -- they are tough customers. I wonder if coots ever pick on them?