Snow Geese

SnowGeese9Mar12#052E2

Part of a migrating flock of Snow Geese feeding in early March

After weeks of searching and following leads, I finally stumbled into feeding Snow Geese on March 30. By Snow Goose standards, the flocks were tiny: 15 in one and a mixed flock of about 30 Snow Geese and a dozen Canada Geese in the other. In both cases the birds were feeding in fallow cornfields not far from open water and wetlands, refueling for their long migration to tundra habitats in Canada and Alaska.

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Snow Geese feeding aggressively; a flock of feeding geese always has a “lookout”, ready to sound the alarm if a threat appears.

My first impression of a flock of Snow Geese in a bare field is the presence of a mass of large white objects that don’t belong there, that there is something foreign scattered about (as is the case of farmland adjacent to the local landfill). The only sizable flocks of white birds normally seen in fields in this area are gulls, so something much larger doesn’t register. After reviewing my images, I discovered that a flock may have more color variation than is evident from a glance at distant birds without optics. Immature birds of the white morph Snow Goose (the variant most common in the East) are more gray than white.  Adult and immature “Blue Geese”,  a color morph more common in the Gulf and West, are mostly dark gray (adults have a white head and neck).

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Part of a small white morph flock, with both adult and immature birds.

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Display of the white body and black wing primaries of an adult white morph Snow Goose.

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Adult and immature (center) white morph Snow Geese

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Foreground: adult white morph Snow Geese with dirty-yellow feeding stains on their heads; background: immature blue morph Snow Geese.

Increased Snow Geese sightings and more liberal hunting regulations should come as no surprise. Numbers have exploded across the continent over the past 30 – 40 years, in some areas increasing by a factor of 20 or more. Among the problems associated with abnormally high populations of Snow Geese (and Canada Geese as well) are damage to wildlife habitat (including their own) and agricultural crops.  Snow Geese eat plant materials, and will graze, rip, shear, root and pull at just about anything within reach, above ground or below. This includes grasses and grass-like plants, grains, tubers, rhizomes and the succulent parts of woody shrubs. During this photo shoot, I was impressed with the manner in which a goose aggressively yanked a corn cob, with part of the stalk still attached, from partially frozen mud. The yellowish stain on the head of some of the geese in these photos is reportedly the result of feeding in mud and muck.

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Snow Geese feeding with their heads buried in the corn waste and mud.

Regardless of how you feel about the burgeoning goose populations in North America, a flock of Snow Geese foraging in a field with a backdrop of earth tones or in flight with evergreen trees or blue sky beyond is a beautiful sight that isn’t soon forgotten.

The photo gallery that follows is my attempt to capture and share the beauty of a rising flock as I experienced it. Click on an image for a full-screen view.

All photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

Signs of Spring

Winter is in retreat. The snow is gone from the lower elevations and receding slowly, but surely, from the colder areas at higher elevations and on north-facing slopes. I enjoy following the natural events associated with this transitional time and the advance of spring. Animal behavior is especially fascinating.

The Groundhog (Woodchuck), having lived off fat reserves while hibernating in its burrow for six months at a near-death metabolic rate, is ready for a change of scenery and a good meal. However, some are in for a surprise when they emerge, finding snow-covered fields rather than fresh greens.

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Groundhog on the 27th of March

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Waterfowl, particularly Mallards, dabble in cut corn fields flooded with water from melting snow, finding something to eat between the rows of stubble.

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Hen and drake Mallard feeding in a flooded field

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For months, whitetails have subsisted largely on woody browse such as the twigs of apple, ash, and Red-osier Dogwood. If available, the evergreen foliage of hemlock and Northern White-cedar was also consumed . Having exhausted most of this food supply, in many instances over-browsing it and damaging the plants, they’re searching snow-free fields for a dietary shift that includes emerging weeds and grasses. Hungry deer are feeding throughout the day, just about anywhere that nutritious, herbaceous food is available. Overall, the deer in this locale appear to be in fairly good condition, although some of the young deer, last year’s fawns, look gaunt.

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Small herd of White-tailed Deer feeding in mid-day; late March, after snow melt

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Adult White-tailed Deer feeding in a harvested corn field

Perhaps the most notable harbinger of spring and the changing seasons is the Red-winged Blackbird. They arrive in early to mid-March, usually in noisy winter flocks that are easily seen and heard. One such flock, about 30 birds, arrived here in mid-March. Throughout the day they repeatedly swooped into the feeders, fed briefly, then burst into flight and settled in the large, mature oak and maple trees nearby.

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Part of a small flock of two dozen Red-wings, bursting into flight after feeding

When feeding socially, males on the ground show just the white or yellow edge of their shoulder patches. However, the red shoulder patches typically displayed by males in the breeding season are visible in flight.

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Male Red-wings feeding, with their red shoulder plumage hidden except for the bird in flight

The females are entirely different (sexual dimorphism) – mostly brown with pronounced streaking and a light cream or pale orange throat.

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Female Red-winged Blackbirds

When the snow and stormy weather subsided, the backyard flock dwindled in size. The birds moved on to traditional feeding grounds and to establish breeding territories (they may continue to feed in flocks during the breeding season). I’ll continue to see a few birds at the feeders, but the more common sighting at this time is that of a territorial male, perched on a cattail stalk or other low vegetation in marshes, fields, roadside ditches and other suitable habitat, doing everything possible to attract females (as many as possible) and defend its breeding territory..

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Male Red-wing perched on a cattail stalk, investigating a marshy wetland and potential breeding territory

When defending territories, the males are conspicuous in color and voice. Their bright red shoulder patches are in full display during the breeding season, serving to establish dominance and attract mates.

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Territorial male Red-wing Blackbird showing the “song spread display” (1 of 3)

 

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A male Red-wing in early May, singing in the brush at the edge of an uncultivated field

All photos by NB Hunter

March Robins

Is there anyone in North America who is not familiar with the American Robin? This member of the thrush family is one of our most common birds, rivaling the European Starling and Red-winged Blackbird in abundance. Depending on the season, it can be seen throughout the continental U.S. and in Canada and Alaska. So, why bother to photograph and post a species so familiar to so many?

The sight of a robin methodically working across a summer lawn, hopping, stopping and cocking its head before spearing a worm was, for the longest time, the extent of my knowledge of the diet and feeding habits of robins. A rural, outdoor lifestyle in the snow belt changed that. I discovered that some robins don’t migrate in winter. Those that do migrate arrive, like the Red-winged Blackbirds, as “harbingers of spring”, perhaps weeks before ground feeding becomes an option. This is a case of the early bird not getting the worm, not under several inches of snow in frozen ground. So, what do large numbers of robins feed on in the off-season?

In March, flocks of migrating robins are seen in brushy fields, forest edges, backyards – places where the fruit of shrubs and small trees has persisted through the winter. This might include native vines and shrubs like wild grapes  and the sumacs, or cultivated trees like certain cultivars of flowering crabapple.

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American Robin feeding on the persistent fruit of a native shrub, Staghorn Sumac,
in March

A close friend and former colleague has thickets of Staghorn Sumac growing behind his house and barn, just beyond the managed portion of the property. Dozens of robins, as well as starlings and other species, descend on these large, wild shrubs every March and devour the persistent fruits in a few days time.

I spent a couple of hours watching this spectacle, learning and laughing as I tried to capture the acrobatic feeding behavior of 15 to 20 American Robins and European Starlings. The March Robins photo gallery tells the story of that experience.

All photos by NB Hunter

A Popular Exotic: The Ring-necked Pheasant

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Adult male Ring-necked Pheasant

Every few years a Ring-necked Pheasant appears at the bird feeders in winter. I’ve seen four or five in 28 years.  I know of no wild birds in the area and assume that the occasional visitor is the result of artificially reared birds being released by a private individual. Regardless of origin or status, the male or cock bird must be admired for its beauty.

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Close-up of the body plumage of a male pheasant, foraging in the snow

A native of Asia, the pheasant was introduced into the U.S. well over a hundred years ago, mainly due to its popularity as a game bird. After WWII game farms sprung up across the northern states and parts of southern Canada to artificially propagate birds for release into the wild. These wide-scale stockings resulted in “wild” populations (established, breeding populations) where the habitat was suitable. Subsequently, the Ring-necked Pheasant became one of the few introductions of a nonnative species to be judged both desirable and successful. In New York State, wild populations occur, mainly in the Lake Plains of the western part of the state. Elsewhere, in marginal habitats, sightings are generally stocked birds that will not persist as breeding populations. Heavy snow, ice and predation take their toll.

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Pheasants, like grouse, turkeys, quail and chickens, are gallinaceous birds. They’re stocky, with relatively short wings and a stout bill. These are adaptations for foraging on the ground and escaping with rapid bursts of speed over short distances (for many, this may include running as well as flying). A crop (thin, pouch-like organ at the base of the throat) enables this type of bird to consume a lot of food quickly, storing it for breakdown and digestion later, while in the safety of cover.

This bird is using its heavy beak to scrape away leaf litter and ground cover to find corn.

RNPheasant14Mar13#039E

Primarily ground feeders, pheasants rely heavily on waste corn in agricultural areas for food in late fall and winter

Due to their popularity, pheasants are managed intensively, especially on primary range. Their survival is closely tied to the “human-made plains” habitats associated with agricultural practices. Grain fields; fallow, protected fields dominated by grasses; and thick, brushy areas near food sources are all critical habitats at various times of the year. The thick cover needed in winter is often found in lowland swamps or along the edges of cattail marshes. I have also observed large wintering flocks along the thick borders of abandoned railroad beds.

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.All photos by NB Hunter

Quality Time with Mergansers

I was scouting cut corn fields on a tip that migrating snow geese were stopping to feed and rest. It was 19 degrees with a 20 mph wind, so road hunting from the warmth of my truck seemed to be the best strategy.

I didn’t see snow geese but spotted a pair of hooded mergansers on a tiny, roadside  pond. Hooded mergansers are small, fast-flying diving ducks that are wary and intolerant  of disturbance. The pond, probably installed for erosion control, was no more than 50 feet across and rimmed with small trees and brush. Most small ponds in the area were frozen, so I assumed it was spring fed and healthy. Somehow I managed to ease the truck off the road and reach a vantage point without pushing the mergansers off the water. After a few minutes they settled and resumed normal activity, treating me to an hour-long demonstration on the feeding behavior of a pair of hooded mergansers.

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Hooded mergansers; the male has just surfaced from a feeding dive.

In the spring, small ponds, swamps and rivers in wooded areas are preferred habitat for breeding pairs of hooded mergansers. Trees are an important habitat feature because this species, like wood ducks, nests in tree cavities. The recommended dimensions for an artificial nest box shed light on the nature of these cavities: roughly 24” high x 11” wide, with an oval-shaped  entrance hole about 4” wide x 3” high.

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Brilliant black and white markings and chestnut flanks distinguish the colorful male. The white crest on his head, which he expands when courting, is an outstanding identifying feature for a bird on the water, even at long distances.

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The female is drab but has the typical merganser silhouette: a distinct crest and long, slender bill.

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Hen that just popped to the surface after a feeding dive

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Mergansers are diving ducks. Strong, fast swimmers with long, slender, serrated bills, they are well-adapted for underwater fishing. The dive is abrupt and fast, lasting 5 to 10 seconds. 

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While submerged, they search for small fish, frogs, crayfish and small aquatic organisms. In this case, aquatic vegetation on their bills and a worm-like invertebrate (?) caught by the hen suggest that they were foraging at the bottom of the pond.

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When feeding, the pair was usually in close proximity to one another. I’m not sure why the hen became aggressive toward the drake, but I believe she was being a bit greedy over the subsurface food supply rather than fending off an unwanted suitor.

HoodedMerg14Mar13#111E

The weather failed to improve and the mergansers drifted toward cover near shore. I decided to let them be, grateful for the unexpected quality time and opportunity to observe the behavior of a pair of elusive wild ducks.

All photos by NB Hunter