Sunday, June 30, 2013

New Ducks in the Park

An adult female mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchus, with three immatures. Mother duck is at the top of the photo. Click to enlarge.
I was walking in Brooklyn Bridge Park last week, descending the north-most path in the water gardens. I heard plop plop. Two ducks had slipped from the little bridge into the water. They were two of three almost fully-grown immature mallard ducks with an adult female. They all looked at me for a moment, then the mother turned and led the way into the reeds. They paddled into the thick high foliage at the southern end of the little pond by the wine bar and disappeared. I barely had time to take these photos.

I went to the other end of that patch of plants, thinking the ducks might come out, but no. They had quietly slipped into a spot where they could not be seen. There in the middle of metropolis, with hundreds of walkers, joggers, and bikers passing every day, the ducks have a secret spot. I wonder if they've been there since February and March when I saw ducks mating on the pond? 

Mallard duck eggs take about a month to hatch. The chicks stay with their mother for about eight weeks until they are able to fly, or fledge. So, yes, one of the ducks I saw mating at the end of winter may have built a nest deep in the reeds, laid eggs, hatched chicks, and discretely mothered her flock in the area all that time, eluding me on my frequent prying walks in the park. 

Well played, mother duck!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Eastern Towhee

A male eastern towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus, has reddish eyes and a long black tail. Head, back, and breast are black;  wings black with white streaks; belly white; sides rusty red. Click to enlarge. 
I always hear towhees before I see them. In spring, males sit conspicuously in treetops singing what birdwatchers think sounds like: "Drink your teeeeeeee!" The first note is sharp and the last is a musical trill. Click here to watch and listen to a towhee singing the famous towhee song. 

Or I hear them scratching in the underbrush. Getting a look at a foraging towhee is more challenging. They dig in leaf litter  to uncover food items, typically scratching with both feet while hopping backwards. They make a lot of noise, so I sometimes investigate the sound expecting rabbits or raccoons or some other large noisy thing. Towhees sometimes turn up insects that way, or millipedes or snails, all of which they will happily eat. They also eat seeds and fruit.

Eastern towhees are found in the eastern half of north america. In the northeast, we only see them in spring and summer when they come to nest. This pair were foraging in the open grass around Pakim Pond in the New Jersey pine barrens. I've seen them in Central Park in Manhattan, and many places in between.

A female eastern towhee is also about 7 inches long, with the same color pattern, but has brown feathers where the male has black. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Cicadas !

A periodical cicada out of the ground after 17 years and enjoying his salad days. Click to enlarge. 
I walked through a large swarm of cicadas today in the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York. Everywhere I looked, cicadas were flying from perch to perch in the trees. Plants were covered with them, or with their empty skins. Their whirring chirping songs were as loud as New York City traffic on Broadway at rush hour.

A shed cicada skin attached to a leaf. 
The cicadas emerging around New York now are members of a huge group called Brood II that has a geographic range that includes North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. The cicadas are synchronized to emerge in the same year when the local soil temperature is just right.

They crawl out of the ground in an incompletely developed form called a nymph, then attach to a surface and shed their outer skin (exoskeleton) and emerge as adults.  Males fly off to sing in the trees. Females are attracted to the songs. Couples mate. Females lay eggs on twigs. The adults die after about three weeks. In six to ten weeks, the eggs hatch into tiny nymphs and fall to the ground. They burrow down. And there they stay, sucking on roots, until before you know it, 17 years have passed, it is time for the brood to emerge.

The ground was full of holes recently vacated by cicadas. 

I saw them near the Stony Kill Farm Environmental Educational Center in Wappinger Falls. If you want to look for them, drive north on route 90 past the farm with your windows open. When you hear a loud whirring that suggests a giant spaceship overhead, you have found swarmaggedon. Or was that cicadapocalypse?

There were piles of shed skins and dead adults on the ground. 

We'll be back in 2030! :-) 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Baby Robin !

Last week I found a robin's nest in the garden behind my home in Brooklyn. Click on the photos to enlarge.  
The nest was placed under a lamp, where it was sheltered from rain, heated from the light at night, and supported on a sturdy pole. Clever! 
I tiptoed out after dark and found a vigilant parent motionless on the edge of the nest, watching me. I bet she heard me coming. 
This parent is removing a fecal sac that a chick produced, a little membrane-bound package of waste material that is easily carried away and discarded. 
Robin chicks grow fast. Not wanting to disturb them overly much, I returned a week after I took the photos above, and I found this giant baby.
Action shot! A parent brought food and the baby jumped up enthusiastically, looking sparsely feathered. 
Parent and chick in a classic pose. A few days after this photo was taken,  I went to look at the nest and found it empty. Good luck, Baby Robin! 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Common Grackle

The common grackle, Quiscalus quiscula. Click to enlarge.
The common grackle looks uniformly black from a distance, but when you get closer, and especially in the sunlight, you can see its glossy purple head and iridescent bronze back. Grackles are common in New York City.

Grackles forage in low bushes or on the ground for insects, seeds, and fruit. They sometimes show up at picnics to troll for treats. They are willing to try new foods and they don't mind people, so they do well in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

The common grackle is about 12 inches long, with long legs and tail, slightly down-curved bill, and bright yellow eyes.