Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Magnificent Eight

On a Misty Morning the First Mergansers Arrive
The Hawk Likes the Pond Food, Too
A Female Checking Out the 'Hood
A Couple of Flashy Males
Where Mergansers and Horses Meet
Grenny Scored a Gopher! Todd Carries the Trophy
Party on the Water
Males Flash and Splash
White catches my eye easily. It flashes like a beacon from Elmira Pond, and that's exactly what it is -- a neon sign for sex. The Magnificent Eight have arrived.

Male mergansers in full mating regalia are hot to behold. At least, I hope females flying overhead in the great northern migration think so. How can the ladies miss all those flashing inflated white heads on one pond?

Perhaps they long for more than a healthy hood in a male.

Do prospecting female mergansers consider the neighborhood? After all, these flashy males promise to abandon them when junior mergansers arrive. The males deflate their hoods and move out.

The females school the juveniles in the art of fishing and eagle avoidance.

So while the males are partying in March on Elmira Pond, singing, "Hey baby, hey baby, hey..." and dancing on water with wings splayed and waves kicked up into a crest, the females are looking beyond the boys and at the 'hood.

The Purcell Trench cradles Elmira Pond in a swath of glaciated land. In comparison to the massive bodies of water left behind by glaciers -- Lake Pend Oreille, Kootenai  River, Priest Lake, the Clark Fork -- it is humble. "Bog" is often the name it receives.

Yet, the water deserves at least pond status. It might be spring fed or merely left-over glacial drainage. It has deep holes and floating islands of mat. Of course, it has rich layers of peat that read like a biological book, telling the stories of life, decay and pollen.

The female mergansers want what the males are enjoying -- food. Hooded mergansers are voracious diving fowl, eating fish, frogs and even rodents. I welcome any creature on this pond to all-you-can-eat gophers. Many give testimony to the tasty treat -- eagles like them; the hawk likes them; the cat loves them; and at last, my dogs have learned to catch them.

Mergansers are welcome to eat gophers, too.

It must be a robust year for pond food to support eight hooded males. The Canada goose couple has returned. At least I like to pretend it is the same couple. They are re-nesting on goose island already. There's one ringed-neck duck couple. No buffleheads or widgeons, yet.

It's early in the season.

But it's the first time I've seen so many flashy white males on the pond. Among them is a single female with her crested mohawk. At least one female likes the potential summer digs and the current menu of food.

Will seven others join in or will seven water-tapping, hood flapping males miss out on spring love? Nonetheless it proves to be a good push into spring. I've missed watching the pond.

The soap opera has begun; March Madness returns with the Magnificent Eight.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Eagles Have Landed

Pointing North
Looting Crow
A Pair of House Finches
Nuthatch on Frosted Ground Among Tunnels
Eagle on the Old Dock Post
What Tangle of Wings is This?
Balds & Vultures? Goldens?
Balds & Babies!
Hanging Out
Crow Looks Small, Like a Meal
Immature With Wet Feathers
Family Day on Elmira Pond
Waiting for Junior to Dry
Are You Dry, Yet?
Dry Enough to Fly Away!
Elmira Pond pools like silver caught between fluid and form. Ice expands a shell overnight and day melts the edges. I tiptoe to windows at dawn, binoculars in hand, hoping, waiting to see hints of the migration I know is progressing.

Geese flap long wings in a northern v against brooding gray skies. It neither rains nor snows, and on the days the sun appears I'm surprised by the burst of energy. I sit on the porch, hands cuddling a cup of coffee as warm as a puppy. I continue to search for something more than crows looting the pond.

Todd pokes out his head from the porch door. "I started you a fire he says." Yes, I know it's warmer inside than this intermediary weather who promises us an end of winter but hedges on when spring will actually arrive. And then feathers flit.

A pair of house finches hop and flutter from pine bough to crest of the blue spruce in front of us. The colors are returning! In fall, the male birds are buffer as if the disco inferno of their mating days leave them with with sun-faded feathers. They are emerging with new duds to attract the females. Dancing kings.

Another flit and a red-breasted nuthatch drops to the ground among winter tunnels pushed up by gophers who remained active beneath the snow. I ignore these blights, tunneling from my gopher-ridden potato patch. Criminals. I'm contemplating their demise and might resort to Caddyshack dynamite eventually. But not now.

Coffee is gone and go back inside, back to my office upstairs.

Soon a squeaky train wheel is distracting me. Glancing over my shoulder toward the train tracks I'm surprised to see it empty. No train. Curious, I go to the window. The steely sound continues. That's when I spot a blaze of white above the bleached shell of pond ice. Grabbing the binoculars (yes, I sit at my desk with a pair) I realize the white patch is the head of a massive bald eagle.

A bald eagle! The one who flies lazy loops up and down state highway 95 all winter in search of roadkill is now perched on the old dock post on Elmira Pond. And I think he's making that steely chirp.

My quick descent down the stairs sets off the dog-alarms. Hush! I don't want to miss this shot. I step out the front door relieved to see he is still poised. Click. Click. I collect pixels of his likeness, excited he's landed from his daily flights for a photo opp. Cautiously I move closer. Click. Click. I round the truck, leaning on the hood to steady my shots.

There's that squeak again! And it isn't him. I look to the center of the pond and I nearly drop my camera. A tangle of rising feathers and chirps, hops and posturing. At first I think a gang of vultures has downed an elk on my pond. That's what it looks like -- death-raptors in feathered shrouds, hovering over carrion.

Then one lifts its head. Another bald eagle! Further behind I see yet a third one. Bald eagles sharing a meal with vultures? I climb into the back of the truck, step onto the tool box and take a seat on the cab. This is the earliest recorded bird show on Elmira Pond! February 22, 2016. 9:30 a.m. Continue big beastly birds, continue.

But oh, dear, I hope you aren't eating anything majestic like a moose or my neighbor's horse. I wish I could entice them to dig gophers in my yard. Nothing majestic about those potato thieves and lawn disrupters. I try to see what exactly they are feeding upon and realize it's a small meal. A muskrat at the largest, possibly a turtle. Why so many gathered?

Todd joins me. "Golden eagles, too," he says. Goldens? And balds? Sharing turtle soup? It seems puzzling until I recall something a local birder told me -- if you see golden eagles in the Lake Pend Oreille watershed, mostly it's juvenile bald eagles. That's what we are seeing! The entire valley community of bald eagles, all gathered on the thin crust of Elmira Pond ice.

Observation is a good teacher. It may not have the measurements of science and often it reveals more than any bird textbook. One adult hangs back -- the big guy on the dock post. He never moves, chirps or flaps a wing. He watches the activity on the pond as passively as a human might stare at the television with nothing of import to watch. Zoning out.

The other two adults are more engaged. One is right there in the middle of the three juveniles, squeaking like a train wheel. The other stands back. Several catch air with wings and move in grand hops, legs straight as a lean logger's. In fact, I notice how straight the birds legs extend upward to chest and head, yet this massive body, rump and fantail of white drape behind like some sort of bird bustle. They stand over two-feet tall.

The juveniles all have mottled dark and light wings and their beaks are mostly black, not yellow. Yet you can see yellow developing from the face. According to the experts, it takes about five years for a bald eagle to obtain sexual maturity. That means the three adults are over the age of five and the three younger ones are less than that. The younger three could be brood mates, or successive siblings.

One theory as to why immature eagles are different in coloring (including eyes, beaks and feathers) is not to be deemed a threat during mating season. Eagles are territorial during mating season and keep other eagles out of their nesting area up to two miles. The fact that three adults were on the pond says the eagles do not yet have spring fever -- they are not yet mating.

After the adult on the post flies off, two of the immature eagles take flight, too. Communal gatherings are one way for the younger birds to learn to hunt from the older ones. It's also possible that one of the immature eagles might have plunged into the pond. Eagles are swimmers, but their feathers do not dry the way an osprey can shake off water.

I notice the remaining youngster fluffs feathers several times and looks to be all wet. He remains standing on the ice until he dries. The two adults, most likely his parents, remain with him. They fly off after he leaps skyward until he's a dark splotch. I now know that the "black" hawks I have continually noticed every year since I've lived here are actually immature bald eagles. They must nest in the area. What a gift.

Until the migrators arrive. Then they become predators. Still, my job as nature writer is not to interfere, not to humanize, but to observe and humanize my own thoughts and reactions.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Counting the Back Yard

Winter Skies Over Elmira
Not Solid Ice
Eagle on Morning Commute
Crows Own the Road
Murder in a Pine
The Loram Grinding Dragon
Wandering Rail Equipment
Rare Sleeper Car for Workers
My local library hosted a class on how to prepare for the Audubon's Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) 2016. It was tempting to go. I'm starting to think of birds again and anticipate the return of migrators with March Madness.

However, my backyard is a dubious place for migrators at the moment. Without open water I don't see much activity. Blue Heron did make a surprise November appearance while there was yet water showing on Elmira Pond. In fact, the pond never really froze solid. It sits like a giant vanilla slurpy in the back pasture. Anything more solid than a bird would punch through, but alas, the birds are too light and feathered to penetrate water.

Tiny blurs of birds flit from the wood pile on my porch to the pines in the yard. How can I possibly count those rascals? They defy my slow-hand photography and refuse to wait for binocular adjustments. Thus, they don't count.

Nearly every day this gray winter, the eagle has flown low in search of road jerky along state highway 95. I see him fly up, and later fly down like some overhead commuter. But during the official count do you think he's shown up? Nope. Calling in on his vacation days no doubt.

Same with the local murder. Crows wait on no one, not even drivers along the road. One, two, then the whole gang shows up, flocking to some opportunistic source of feed. They continue to ignore the now fading ornaments of the Crow Tree. Evidently they got the eagle's message to lie low this weekend. Not a single crow; no murder in Elmira this weekend.

Not a flicker or a chickadee to be seen. Well, what a bummer of a count this is.

Not all was a loss for watching. I heard the squelching of a dragon arrive in the dark of night and knew right away it was the big lumbering train machine I had once seen spewing fire like a steampunk demon. This time, I carefully recorded its habits. It sat for three days on the rails of Elmira. Day or night, passing trains blasted their horn; an indication of workers present.

Huge generators and lights ran continually. It became my lullaby two nights in a row. And I successfully identified the creature -- it is a Loram's Production Rail Grinder. These working trains grind the rails to get a longer life out of the steel. It's a story-worthy process and one I plan to pursue. Like my story about the Italians of Elmira featured in Go Idaho.

Today while watching for silent February birds in my back yard, another train of curiosity trundled down the newly polished Elmira rails. It was an engine, a container and a sleeper car. Back when the unions organized for train transportation, sleeper cars were won by workers. They became moving camps of men who worked the rails in Idaho.

Now they are as rare as, well, as birds in my back yard.