Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March Madness on Elmira Pond

Invite Your Buddies to March Madness
Keep a Comfortable Distance From the Pond
Ready a Chair Under the Apple Tree

So all you NCAA basketball geeks, step aside. Go eat your nachos and have a beer at Sweet Lous,  Laughing Dog Brewery or your own neighborhood pub.

This March Madness is for bird nerds!

Grab the binoculars, camera and the crew. Set up at your favorite viewing spot with an optional beverage of choice (water is wisest, but coffee warms hands on a cool day).

Here on Elmira Pond a chair beneath the old apple tree is best. It isn't too close to pressure timid visitors, yet it is perfect for binocular viewing.

This year I'm inviting my fellow bird nerds to learn about the Big Migrators to or through Elmira Pond. I've tossed in a couple of Wild Cards. "Team Crows" are not migratory, but they take an increased interest of the pond with new visitors. "Team Cat & Crew" are my companions to witnessing the March migration.

A few words about weather in Elmira. Located 17 miles north of Sandpoint, ID and about 45 miles south of the Canada border, we are part of the Inland Northwest and derive enough moisture to grow conifers up to 180 feet tall. We get  six seasons: rainy spring, spring, summer, fall, rainy fall and winter. The two rainy seasons are vital to the forests, valleys and waterways of northern Idaho.

Inland Northwest Courtesy of Wikipedia

Many of the migrators coming from south of Idaho are in serious drought. Rivers are trickles, lakes are dry beds and there's not enough snow pack in the mountains to help with the coming summer. At first I thought our migrators were showing up early because it's been milder this last bit of winter, but it could be that drought is pushing them north at a faster rate.

If you are a backyard birder, leave a comment about what is happening in March where you live, and whether or not you are seeing any unusual activity. Please take time to read the posts linked to each "Team" below and then come back and vote for your favorite.

Team Canada Geese

Team Cat & Crew

Team Crows

Team Mallards

Team Hooded Merganser

Team Ringed-Necks
Team Tundra Swans

Team Wigeons

Once you've read about each team, take this survey to cast your vote! Thank you for joining me in March Madness!
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Team Cat & Crew

A Lone Starling Singing Like a Diva
Four Turtles on the Log
No Cats Allowed Here
Big Beauty for A small Place
Companionable Robins
Rolling in the Peat
The Resident Barn Cat
What is bird-watching if not to be shared with others?

My biggest delight in life is to have another living soul seated next me with our eyes fixed on birds. My eldest got me started in birding, and Elmira Pond has been my training ground. I've learned that ducks exist beyond mallards; that migrators come and go; and that a healthy pond will support a variety of life.

As a nature writer, I observe differently than a scientist does. I'm not interested in numbers and markings. I'm fascinated by what I can learn about human behavior in context and contrast to nature at large. When I observe and write prose, I connect to the world around me. One day, I will share this type of writer's observation and nature writing with others.

For today, I share it with a cat and other birds.

Cats are noted predators of birds. I once watched a cat stalking on Elmira Pond and found it hunting mice or moles. Cats are welcome to that food source. I've yet to find any feathers in the barn cat's barn. I've found plenty of mice and mole carcasses. We hope to keep this trend going.

When I settle in with binoculars, camera and coffee, Bootsy the resident barn cat loudly announces her intention to watch with me. It's good to have a companion. She pads across my lap, hooking claws ever-so-lovingly into my thighs before she settles. Bootsy is attentive and watches with me.

The robins dare to come close, flitting to the fence to chatter at us. They are great companions, too. Out on the pond, turtles rise to sun on the mostly submerged log. In summer, that log is a favorite spot for Blue Heron to pick at his molting feathers or for Mama Merganser to soak up sun rays. For now, the turtles get first sitting.

I can hear the birds I can't see. Chickadees call from tree to tree and the shrill cry of a killdeer echos across the pond in the morning and evening. A songbird catches my attention and I try to take a photo. I'm disappointed that it is a starling. For all the huge flocks they fly in, I only see small groups migrating.

One evening a small flock of unidentified birds flew overhead. Two stragglers were so tired that they wobbled like butterflies, but followed nonetheless. Great blue herons fly up and down the valley Elmira Ponds sits in every morning and evening. Our resident Blue Heron has a mate elsewhere. Elmira Pond is his bachelor pad. After he's done his duty, I'll see more of him.

We BBQ more now that the birds are flocking to and thru the area. Rain drives us out some nights and the pond level rises and recedes with each storm or return of sunshine. We are a crew of one cat, one writer and many visitors. Perhaps one day you will join us here.

This is part of a March Madness Series. Vote for your favorite team!

Team Crows

The Murder Gathers
Foraging Seeds
Keeping a Lookout for Road Kill
Big Bird with Big Feet
Always on the Move
The Uninteresting Crow Tree
Black and hunkering loudly around the carcasses of moose or elk that get struck by cattle trucks on the highway running past Elmira Pond, it's no wonder we call a group of crows a murder.

This maligned bird has emerged from superstition with a bad reputation. American crows are found in every state across the lower 48, yet I've had people tell me they are "not native." Superstition in medieval times makes sense, but what is it about modern crows that continues to start small arguments over coffee?

To prove my spouse wrong -- yes, I will admit to satisfaction in doing so -- I set out to find the origins of crows in Idaho. My first clue that he was wrong was the name. They are called American crows. Doesn't sound like an invasive species to me. Next I discovered that they are widespread and make their homes year-round in North America. I'd say they are native, and found year-round in northern Idaho.

Yet, I also discovered that crows are widely persecuted, poisoned and have even been bombed from their nests. Farmers and hunters believe that crows destroy crops and nesting birds. What is interesting is that studies show that if crows (who are predators as well as scavengers) are removed from an area, nesting populations of the birds they were said to impact does not increase.

Fact is, there are many predators. Remove a crow and a racoon will come in. Remove the racoon and the eagle will get the goods. Nesting birds don't have an easy time bringing their young to fruition. This is not the fault of crows, but a dynamic ecosystem where birds are part of the food chain.

Crows are extremely clever and unlike other predators they are good at finding many other sources of food, including roadkill, cast off fast-food and garden refuse. According to studies, they can count, solve puzzles and learn symbols.

Among the superstitious stories that circulate regarding the destruction caused by crows, I've also read a few amazing stories of friendship. In neighboring Washington state, a family feeds their local murder scraps. The crows really like left-over BBQ ribs and peanuts. They also liked the family's cat and would often play. One morning the family rose to a raucous raised by the crows. When they investigated where the crows gathered, they discovered that a coyote had killed their cat. Not much remained. Two weeks later, the crows brought back the cat's collar to the family.

My Crow Tree is to start up an interaction with the local murder Unsuccessful as it has been in attracting the crows, I have plans when I get to gardening. More to come on that later.

This is part of a March Madness Series. Vote for your favorite team!

Team Hooded Mergansers

The Returning Couple
Look Carefully, Both Have Crests
His is Yet Deflated
She Has a Fish
A Beautiful Pair
Preparing Another Dive
Walking on Water (2014 Photo)
They are back! The mating pair of hooded mergansers -- and I would like to believe it is the same pair, but who knows -- are back in residence.

Supposedly, hooded mergansers are solitary and committed to a monogamous relationship so this could be the same couple that has shown up for the third year in a row.

I think the females will accept another mate if her original one dies. I believe this to be the same female and her male from last year. Let me tell you why I believe this.

2013 was the first year I ever saw mergansers of any kind. In my initial duck-confusion of that year, I thought they were wood ducks because the males have striking features just as wood ducks do and both species use nesting boxes or trees. That year I watched the babies emerge from a tree on the Bluebird Ranch next door to Elmira Pond.

To my horror, an eagle swooped down and picked off several ducklings. I watched with binoculars and yelled at the eagle. The American icon could care less. The male duck got between the ducklings and the eagle, sacrificing his life with that act. The female and two babies survived and kept their summer home on Elmira Pond.

Watching the widowed mother, I wondered at her funny cinnamon-colored mohawk. Turns out that it is a crest and she was not a female wood duck, but a female hooded merganser. She is an impressive fisher, diving and emerging with large fish and even huge bullfrogs. I've watched her rear back her head the same way that I've seen the great blue heron do to swallow a meal whole.

Last year a sole female hooded merganser showed up to Elmira Pond with three males. One remained with her and she had a larger brood of babies last year. Last year we also had a huge increase in red-winged blackbirds. They annoyed me because they often chased off the osprey, and I love watching the osprey. However, they seemed to keep the crows, hawks and eagles away, too. Perhaps this is the security system for Mrs. Hooded Merganser and her second mate.

I'd like to believe that this returning female is her. She has only one male which would indicate their monogamy, as cited in books. But I have to tell you how funny the males are!

They are called "hooded" because the males have a large crest. It inflates and deflates. Just think of other males parts that do so and having something similar on one's head is a rather silly thought. But it is majestic fully inflated. Deflated, it hangs limply like a turkey's baggy glottal.

And hooded mergansers can walk on water! I've seen it! Actually, they can run on water and they do this with their short but powerful wings and their fabulous feet. Last year, I watched a male run the entire length of Elmira Pond.

And those feet and wings are what make hooded mergansers such swift divers. I'm pleased that they have returned and I hope for another brood upon the pond.

This is part of a March Madness Series. Vote for your favorite team!

Team Wigeons

Scoping the Mystery Ducks
Something Familiar About Them
Wigeon Swimming Past Sleeping Mallards
Just Passing Thru
Every year, I make the same mistake. I rise in the morning, scope Elmira Pond with the binoculars and see a duck I don't recognize. Mergansers? Wood duck? Ringed-neck? Bufflehead? Loon? Mutant?

What is it!

To the bird book I go. This year I've noted on the American wigeon page, "always mistake for a mysterious visitor." The photos in the bird book show details that blend at a distance. The wigeons white markings are not as distinct as other ducks. The males have a taupe color -- could be brow, could be gray -- with white overtones.

Yet as indistinct as wigeons appear, I recognize their throaty whistle which sounds like a cute squeaky toy. It's a soft sound, as soft as their muted colors, but unmistakeable. They are about the same size as the ringed-necks and both are half the size of the mallards.

Wigeons come and go. They are dabblers and Elmira Pond doesn't seem to keep many, but they do visit frequently in early spring. A ccording to the bird book, wigeons live year-round in the inland Northwest. They must like our four seasons.

The breeding grounds of wigeons are north and east of Elmira Pond. Many winter in the southwest and Mexico. They've done well as a species due to wet conditions. With the drought, I wonder if they will be impacted?

They don't say as they peep across the pond and fly on.

This is part of a March Madness Series. Vote for your favorite team!

Team Ringed-Necks

Ringed-neck on the Pond
Getting Frisky
Puffy Peaked Head
Black, White & Gray Markings
En Masse
Wonder What the Turtles Think?
Daffy Duck. That was my first though upon seeing my first-ever ringed-neck duck. Like the cartoon character, the males have a puffy and peaked black head. Unlike the cartoon, though, the males have beautiful gray, white and black markings.

The females, like other duck hens, are the safe colors of dry nesting grass and rushes -- brownish. Yet, just like the males, both genders of ringed-necks have a distinct beak. It's a blue-gray bill with a black tip and a white ring. It's easy to spot with the binoculars.

What isn't easy to spot is the cinnamon-colored ring that encircles their necks. It is fro this ring that they get their name, but I'll be darned if I can see the marking. This is my third season of trying to spot it and I can't see a cinnamon-colored ring. I can see the white ring on beaks; not on necks.

This is a diving duck and no surprise there. Elmira Pond has enough tadpoles, early peepers, fish and aquatic plants to attract divers. Dabblers stop over, too but not as frequently as the divers. And ringed-necks are impressive divers. They can go as deep as 40 feet where they prefer to dine on bottom aquatic plants.

Like mallards, ringed-necks will sleep, floating on the pond. I can tell when they are sleeping because they twist their heads back to lie their beaks upon their backs. How peaceful to sleep and float en masse with your brethren. The sleeping group looks like bobbing tuxedos with more males present than females.

So far, I've counted five males and three females. They are monogamous and solitary nesters which always surprises me each year when they turn up in a group with odd numbers of genders. By May the males will be gone. I've not seen baby ringed-necks on the pond. Ducklings remain a favorite food of eagles and we have a hearty population in this valley. Or maybe, I just can't see the ducklings among the hiding rushes.

March Madness is fun for spotting the colorful males. They get frisky and beat at the water with their wings. After their "games" they will move on.

This is part of a March Madness Series. Vote for your favorite team!