Three Ducks

I thought she was wounded.

A female Common Merganser floated in a posture I’d not noticed before. A male was with her, swimming broad circles around her prone body. Was she injured? I grabbed my spotting scope to find out.

I watched as she floated, nearly motionless, elongated as though playing dead man’s float.

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Squatter’s Rights

A dozen doors and a skylight.

That’s the approximate count of cavity entrances in the old, broken snag outside my window. I love that ugly remnant of a tree! It brings a daily wildlife show to my front-row seat.

The tree has been occupied by Pileated Woodpeckers, nesting squirrels, Wood Ducks, European Starlings, and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers—several of them simultaneously.

This nesting season, I watched Juliet Squirrel quiver from her balcony in this tree, as she was courted by a Romeo. Soon after, I watched Juliet pad the cavity with leaves, a sure sign she’s expecting. I was looking forward to watching Juliet’s kits take tentative (and comical) first steps outside the cavity.

And then another creature exercised squatter’s rights.

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Good Morning, Geese!

Ubiquitous.

If there’s an apt word to describe Canada geese, that’s the one. They’re always around, sometimes just a pair, more often honking in what seems like the hundreds. I tend to pay little attention to these loud-mouthed creatures.

But a few weeks ago, I woke to an eerily beautiful sight—a line of languid geese seemingly also starting their day. The group was strewn across Lake Allegan’s February ice. The air was misty…almost ethereal.

I wondered … did the birds spend their night on the ice?

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Splish. Splash. Fish!

Mergansers are a common sight–pun intended– on Lake Allegan.

Common Mergansers, or Mergus merganser in ornithology-speak, are social creatures that flock in groups up to 75 individuals. I usually see about half that number, most often in late winter and spring.

These small diving ducks seem to prefer the main channel of our river-turned-lake. In winter, the water beneath our home will freeze. But the main channel’s deeper, swifter water generally does not. So, as the lake began to thaw after the recent polar vortex, I was doubly surprised to see mergansers close to our shore. Not only were they diving for prey in very shallow water, but they were also fishing beneath the ice.

Picture whack-a-mole without the whacking.

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Winter’s Stoic Eagles

How do birds stay warm in winter?

They huddle. They puff their feathers, tucking head and feet into the fluff. And they shiver.

I was looking for keep-warm behavior as I watched some Bald Eagles during a recent howling snowstorm. An adult and a juvenile flew nearby.

Our lake, an impoundment formed by damming a river, rarely wears a full blanket of ice. When the region’s smaller lakes freeze, Lake Allegan still provides open-water fishing. So, while eagles are a common sight, I was surprised to see how these two behaved in the frigid, snowy wind.

Their heads and toes remained untucked, and while likely parent and child, they were not in a huddle.

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Great Blue Baffling Behavior

A place for everything and everything in its place.

That admonition came to mind as I watched a familiar bird engage in some very peculiar behavior.

Great Blue Herons are a common sight out my window. One fellow (or girl—they look the same) appears regularly on the edge of Eagle Island, about 1,000 feet from our home. He comes out to feed, stalking fish and amphibians as he tip-toes through shallow water in classic heron style. Step. Pause. Stare. Step. Pause. Stare. Step. Pause…Pounce!

But on that July day, something else drew the bird’s attention.

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Red-Bellied Ptooey!

Ptooey!

I wonder. Does the standard onomatopoeia for ‘spitting’ apply to woodpeckers?

Ptooey is a brilliant onomatopoetic expression, but I’ve never had my ear quite close enough to hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker spit.

I need to take a photography class, so I can show you the look of concentration on the bird’s face the instant he spews the chips. That class is on my to-do list. But the good news is, you can see the bird’s determined demeanor on video if you keep scrolling.

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Wiggle Waggle Loon

The loon was wagging its tail.

Such a happy creature, I thought. Then I returned to my senses. Loons are not puppies, whose joyful exuberance might be measured in tail rotations per minute.  Could the tail swish be aimed at keeping insects away? Not likely. Conditions were breezy on Farm Lake, just windy enough to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay. Surely, the loons enjoyed the same benefit of that day’s Algonquin weather.  My kayaking partner and I headed for a closer look.

As we approached, the wagging continued. Six or eight shakes, then a pause, followed by another series of rapid flapping.  The flag-like end of the bird’s tail seemed improbably large. I peered through the camcorder’s viewfinder and bumped up the zoom. The camera jiggled from the kayak’s unsteady movement, but the loon’s details came into view.  That’s when I realized my mistake.

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Please Pass the Fish

Loons are world-class divers.

But not the young ones; at least not for several weeks. On a recent Algonquin paddling trip, I noticed Common Loon parents diving for fish and then surfacing to pass the goodies to their chicks. The fluffy-feathered kids appeared to be good swimmers and sometimes they disappeared momentarily under the water. So why weren’t they foraging their own food?

The answer, it turns out, is in those fluffy feathers.

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Loon Echo

So many loons!

Not on the lake below our home; no loons grace Lake Allegan. But on a recent paddling trip in Canada, we were treated to near-constant loon company. I’ve always understood loons to be shy, so I was not expecting to see so many of them at such close range. The loons did not turn away as we paddled nearby. Sometimes, they even approached us, stopping just a few yards from our kayaks. Apparently, these Ontario loons see a lot of paddlers. Or, they simply share in the Canadian reputation for being extra friendly.

I saw some touching loon behavior—adults feeding their young, including one moment when a parent appeared to be teaching the child a food-finding skill. I also saw some comical loon behavior known as the foot waggle. I’ll share those moments in future blog posts.

My favorite loon encounter was the evening we were treated to a loon symphony.
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