March 04, 2006

Snow day

61 wood duck
62 American wigeon
63 bufflehead
64 cackling goose

MARCH 4, EAGLE BLUFFS, cloudy, occasional rain, 40—At least by reputation, birdwatchers offer a mild face to the world, but Big Year birders, from what I've read, can be ruthless in accumulating species. They may love being out among birds and nature, but on the Big Year clock they pursue birds with the raw competitiveness of Tiger Woods going for birdies. Though I didn't wear red (Tiger's tradmark final-round color) or engage in Woods-style fist-pumping, I went to Eagle Bluffs—our local waterfowl and migratory hotspot—for the main purpose of adding species.

Horned larks worked the dry fields, and ducks the pools, not in huge numbers but in variety. I saw a strong lineup of dabblers (green-winged teal, mallard, pintail, shoveler, gadwall, wigeon) and divers (canvasback, redhead, ring-necked duck, bufflehead), plus wood ducks and coots. (Dabblers usually tip forward to feed in shallow water. Their bodies are not streamlined for diving but as a tradeoff they can burst into flight directly from the water. Divers, with large feet and legs set well back, dive proficiently for food but to fly must run across the water surface before takeoff.)

While scoping ducks I heard a low roar from time to time, and finally looked up to see snow geese in the distance. The flock was parked in a partly flooded cornfield, and I settled in about 200 yards away. Out of my ballpark count of 5000, about a third were dark-morph snow geese. At the flock's near edge, 50 white-fronted geese ate and rested. Twice the flock rose loudly and wheeled around the field, settling back down a minute or two later. The few dozen mallards among them didn't budge.

I also found two cackling geese next to the white-fronted. Cackling geese are a new species as of 2004 and were formerly the smaller subspecies of Canada goose. Except for size and slight plumage differences, they are much like the Canada (read about separating cackling from Canada geese here and here). I spent a good hour scanning the flock for Ross's geese, often found with snow geese, but no luck. Snow and Ross's geese now have such enormous populations they are overgrazing arctic breeding areas, with serious consequences for them and other birds that nest there.


Post a Comment

<< Home