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?
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.
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.
Or maybe it was his tail that told the story. I was seated in my usual weekday spot—two hands and one eye on the work computer; my other eye semi-focused on the outdoor goings-on. Which was pretty darn boring today, with all the creatures hunkered down in an eight-degree, blowing snowstorm.
Yesterday, I watched a squirrel make and eat miniature snowballs. As he ate, that frosty childhood treat came to mind. Then I realized my neighborhood creatures are experiencing a drought. Our snowy Michigan landscape looks eerily beautiful this week, but Arctic temperatures have frozen all the wildlife water sources.
This fellow ate his sno-cone with seeming gusto, and I wondered: How do tree squirrels cope with bitter-cold weather?
At first, I didn’t see it. I was reviewing old photos and videos, and all I noticed here was the fungus growing inside the tree. Despite losing its top, this tree has provided nesting space for woodpeckers, wood ducks, and squirrels. But the fungus tells me our wildlife magnet is now so rotted, its shelter days may be winding down. So, the fungus inside the trunk is interesting, but that’s not what fascinates me about the photo.
Look carefully at the squirrel. He’s climbing head-first down the tree trunk. But what about the toes we see grasping the edge? Is that foot coming, or is it going?
Why, I wondered, would a squirrel enter a den to escape a raging snowstorm, but leave its tail hanging outside, waving in the wind? The animal could easily continue into the tree; there’s plenty of room in the hollow trunk. I have seen as many as four squirrels disappear into that den.
I watched, curious. When would the creature withdraw its tail and scamper the rest of the way inside? Twenty minutes passed, and the tail remained outdoors.
Last spring, a mama squirrel was itchin’ to relocate her babies.
She moved them from one den to another—same tree, different apartment. That tree has four cavities whose entry holes are visible from the house, topped by a skylight. Mama carried each kid out of a lower cavity, up the trunk, and into a higher hole. Why? The most likely answer, my online search revealed, was to escape a flea-infested nest.
I wondered if the move really helped. The entire residential complex seemed likely to house fleas, as it was common to see birds and squirrels enter one hole and exit another. I suspected the fleas roamed freely through tunnels connecting the cavities.
I’ll never know if mama’s work was rewarded by a bite-free zone for her kids. I hope so! Nobody wants to think of babies enduring the misery of bug bites. But if she returns to that upper apartment, I suspect she’ll mark it off-limits for future nesting.
Two squirrels–not necessarily including the mama in question–recently lined the upper cavity with leaves. They’re sheltering inside. The other day, one of them climbed out and gave me ample evidence that a flea-festation has reached the upper abode.
You can tell how a crested bird is feeling by watching its feathers.
Uh-oh. Your anthropomorphize-ometer is spinning, isn’t it? Feelings are an ornithological no-no.
But I’ll argue that it doesn’t take much bird watching to notice the agitated crest feathers of a frightened bird. Or the smooth, motionless crest on a calmer bird’s head. If you’re lucky enough to catch their springtime flirting, you may notice that crested birds’ top feathers wag and wiggle in courtship. When they have a family, their nestlings’ crests show visible excitement when mom and dad approach with a meal.
Are the crest feathers expressing feelings? Maybe not, but those top feathers sure seem to convey a crested bird’s state of mind.
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.