Thursday, January 30, 2014

Even More Waterfowl!

In my last post (on the 19th), I said I'd be exploring the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers a bit more in search of new waterfowl, and that I'd post again if I found anything cool.  The weather turned windy and bitter cold, so I did not get to explore as much as I would have liked to, but I did manage to visit a few spots.

On the 20th, I headed back over to Moores Park. I didn't find anything new, but I did find and photograph a beautiful, close-up Horned Grebe, a species I'd already seen but had not been able to photograph:

On the 21st, following a report of two Trumpeter Swans on the 20th, my mom and I headed out to Potter Park to see if we could find them.  After several minutes, we saw them sleeping on an ice sheet, standing out against the surrounding Canada Geese.  They had their heads tucked in, which made it impossible to make an ID.  At one point they briefly stretched and flapped their wings, and I thought I saw triangular, not rounded, bill bases— they were indeed Trumpeters!  A great bird for Ingham County!  But then I looked at one of my photos and began to have doubts.  The bill base looked rounded in the photo, which would make it a Tundra Swan.  Unsure of myself, I decided to go back out and have another look.  This time, luckily, they were out and about, and I could see that both of their bill bases were undeniably rounded—definitely Tundra Swans.  Oh well, they weren't Trumpeters, but it was still very exciting to see non Mute Swans on the river!

This photo seems to show a rounded bill base, a Tundra Swan feature.
On the 25th my dad and I drove—it was far too cold for walking or biking—to Moores Park.  By then, it was so cold that most of the river had frozen over. I thought that most of the area's waterfowl would be concentrated there since, from what I could see, it provided practically the only open water for miles around! As it turns out, it is definitely NOT the only open water in the area (as I found out today) and there was less of a concentration than I had expected. There were still some nice birds, though. Above the dam we found two male Common Goldeneyes, a male Red-breasted Merganser, and four ducks that turned out to all be adult male Redheads!  Below the dam was nothing of interest besides the female Bufflehead that's been hanging around there since the beginning of the month.

Two GORGEOUS male goldeneyes
All four male Redheads
They're beautiful!
Today, the 29th, my mom and I headed out to a place called Island Park in Grand Ledge. As I had discovered not long ago, the ducks and geese there are very tame and I figured it would be fun to bring a some bread and feed the Mallards and geese.  So it was that, despite the frigid weather, I found myself in the Island Park with a loaf of bread in my hand.  The waterfowl knew food when they saw it, and within less than a minute Mallards and geese were crowding all around me for a chance at a morsel of bread.  The Canada and Greylag Geese fearlessly ate bread straight out of my hand.  The Greylags were my favorite, with their array of funny calls, amusing antics, feisty personalities, and—best of all in my opinion—blue eyes.

Part of the crowd at Island Park
One of the Greylag Geese
Umm, excuse me, I want food. NOW, MISTER.
My favorite part was their blue eyes.
Though the Mallards were more reserved (if you can call it that) and refused to come within a couple of feet from me, they still allowed me a wonderful opportunity to photograph and admire them from a "distance".  This led me to the conclusion that Mallards are grossly under appreciated:

Among the normal Mallards there were several odd domestic breeds, such as

Abacot Rangers,
Runner Ducks,
...and many more, including Call Ducks, Duclairs, Buff Orpingtons, and Magpie Ducks!

At the edge of the open water I found a great surprise: a dense flock of mostly diving ducks, including a few that I had not yet seen this year. Present in the flock were all three mergansers, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, a male scaup, and an American Wigeon.  The wigeon was a female, so nothing spectacular—except that she put my January list of waterfowl on the Red Cedar and Grand Rivers at 20!  I found it hard to believe that I'd managed to see 20 species of waterfowl on two shallow inland rivers in less than a month.

As I got a little closer, I could make out a tiny duck with a stiff, pointy tail and a white cheek patch.  It was a Ruddy Duck, a great bird on the Grand River and number 21!  When I got a little closer, the entire flock took off before I could take my already-freezing hands out of my gloves again to take pictures.  The only bird that stayed behind when the flock took off was a female Red-breasted Merganser:

Darn, I thought. But then, while they were flying away, I realized that the male scaup had a LOT of white on his wings. It came almost all the way out to the outer primaries—much more than a Lesser.  It was a Greater Scaup, number 22! Even better, I had now seen all of Michigan's Aythya species—Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and both scaup—on the rivers this month.  I could not believe my luck!

The Greater Scaup was a great way to end—I will be heading up to Conserve School tomorrow! While I'm there, I promise to blog about the magic of the boreal forest.

Happy January everyone!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Local Waterfowl—2014 Style

Waterfowling on the Red Cedar and Grand Rivers has been fantastic this year so far.  Both high diversity and high numbers are present, and because of this I have been fortunate to see all kinds of waterfowl within easy walking distance of my house.  Just for fun, here is a list and some photos of the seventeen (!!) species of waterfowl that I have seen in the past month, as well as a review of three of the areas I like to visit.

Here's the list with high counts:
  • Canada Goose: 1,174
  • Mute Swan: 5
  • Wood Duck: 1
  • Gadwall: 1
  • American Black Duck: 63 (!!)
  • Mallard: 982
  • Canvasback: 1
  • Ring-necked Duck: 5
  • Lesser Scaup: 1
  • Bufflehead: 8
  • Common Goldeneye: 10
  • Hooded Merganser: 1
  • Common Merganser: 6
  • Red-breasted Merganser: 8
  • Pied-billed Grebe: 1
  • Horned Grebe: 1
  • American Coot: 1
Not bad for a shallow inland river!

There are a few areas that I check for waterfowl.  The first is usually Kreuger's Landing.  There is often a goldeneye or two to be seen, and it is a great place for Pied-billed and Horned Grebes in the winter months.  Recently, a stunning drake Canvasback has been hanging out at the landing, allowing amazing point-blank looks.

The amazing drake Canvasback at Kreuger's Landing!
The second spot, Potter Park, is just a quarter-mile walk from Krueger's Landing.  The river here briefly narrows, widens, and narrows again, twice bottlenecking all of the river's water.  This creates currents swift enough that there is always a nice long stretch of open water, no matter how cold it gets. For this reason, this is the best stretch of river to find diving waterfowl.  Earlier this month, for example, I was thrilled when two consecutive visits to Potter Park rewarded me with amazing numbers and diversity of diving waterfowl.  These consisted of a Lesser Scaup, four Buffleheads, three Common Goldeneyes, five Ring-necked Ducks, an American Coot, and, best of all, all three mergansers: one Hooded, five Commons, and three Red-breasteds.  I couldn't believe that I was seeing all three of them on a shallow river two miles from my house!

Common Mergansers
Hooded Merganser
Red-breasted Mergansers and a Common Goldeneye. 
Potter Park is not only a great spot for diving ducks, it is also often host to the rivers' largest concentration of dabbling ducks.  This month, it has hosted particularly amazing concentrations: the last time I visited, I counted an incredible 643 Mallards.  These huge Mallard flocks always contain several more-uncommon dabblers. There are always a few American Black Ducks, of course, but that time I was amazed to count 33 of them on the short stretch of river!  Most of them were part of a large Mallard flock near the second wooden bridge.  Farther upstream, I found a female Gadwall standing on the ice with a flock of 150 Mallards.

THIS is why they are called Black Ducks.

The third place I stop is Moores Park, where turbulent waters downstream of a hydroelectric dam combined with the hot water outflow from the Otto E. Eckert Power Plant ensure that there is always an area of open water.  The birds that take advantage of the turbulent warm water below the dam are almost all Mallards, Canada Geese, and a few Black Ducks and Mute Swans.  There are always a dozen or so "Manky Mallards"—including a few awkward individuals that never fail to draw a snicker from the amused observer.

One of the cuter domestic Mallards at Moores 
Park—a tiny Dusky Call Duck
My family and I like to call this guy the "Punk Rock Mallard"!
(Cayuga Mallard)

Despite the almost complete dominance of Mallards and Canada Geese at the site, every visit turns up something different.  I have found singles or pairs of a surprising number of species: American Coot, Gadwall, American Wigeon, all three mergansers,  Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Blue-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck and Pied-billed and Horned Grebes.  The feature that makes this place worthwhile is the narrowness of the river, which allows close looks at whatever waterfowl are there when you visit.  

A Bufflehead up close at Moores Park
Red-breasted Merganser
My favorite bird from Moores Park had always been the courting pair of Hooded Mergansers.  Until New Year's Day this year, that is.  That was the day that I had just finished scanning the usual flock of Mallards when I lowered my binoculars and saw something standing on the riverbank, not ten feet away from me.  It had a stunning color palette.  It was tiny and very cute.  I could not believe my eyes—it was a drake Wood Duck!  I feasted my eyes for at least ten minutes before finally coming back to reality.  An adult male Wood Duck is a sight to behold at any time of year.  But seeing one on a mid-winter day, when the rest of the world is colored by hues of gray and brown, was mesmerizing!


In the next few days, I intend to thoroughly explore the rest of the Lansing River Trail by bicycle, and hope to discover some more exciting waterfowl.  I'm planning birding along the river in and near MSU campus, the confluence of the Red Cedar and Grand Rivers (where there should be plenty of open water), Lindberg Drive (which probably provides views of the river not accessible from Potter Park), and a few other places.  I will post again if I find anything cool.

Good ducking, everybody!

Friday, January 3, 2014


I found a couple of New Year's Day surprises while out birding the Grand River on Wednesday.  The first was a meganser which at first I assumed was a Common.  After about five minutes, I realized that its bill was long and thin like a Red-breasted's.  So, I finally wiped the frozen fog (that's right) off my binoculars and took a closer look.  Lo and behold, it was indeed a Red-breasted!  Quite a surprise on an inland shallow river.
Hatch-year male Red-breasted Merganser.  A big surprise to find on 
the Grand River, since the species prefers much deeper lakes and rivers.
The next bird was even better, hanging out with the enormous flock of Mallards at Moores Park.  He was the smallest and most adorable bird there, and wow, was he a treat to see on such a bone-chilling winter day!  He was a charming male Wood Duck, a completely unexpected sight in the dead of winter.
Male Wood Duck.  Adorable, wouldn't you agree?
Oh, I forgot to mention the point-blank views.

Happy New Year, everyone!  Have yourself a very birdy 2014!