Tuesday: Duck report

September 21, 2021 • 8:00 am

This will count as readers’ wildlife as I have little time for posting in Cambridge. We have, in fact, the latest duck report from Botany Pond as conveyed by the faithful members of Team Duck who send me daily reports.

The mallards are slowly leaving, and we are down to eight “regulars”: 7 females and a male. These include Draco (the evil drake who won’t let the hens eat), HONEY, my sweet hen who is here for the fifth year, a duck that we think is Dorothy, but whose bill I must check upon returning to be sure, Cyndi, a duck who is very tame and will eat out of our hands (Honey is starting to do this again, too), Mona, a duck with one bad eye who can see food only on her right side (we are taking special care of her) and three unnamed hens.

They have been enjoying the lovely weather in Chicago and are disporting themselves in the water. Here they are diving, zooming, and flying in their usual postprandial display. (Video by Jean Greenberg.)

Look at this duck!

September 10, 2021 • 11:00 am

This is a photo I took on August 3 showing one of our mallard hens, and not one that we know personally. She will strike you as “just an ordinary duck.”  But looking at it again, perhaps you’ll see how strikingly beautiful these birds really are. Not only are they molded by natural selection to be mighty fliers, but they can walk, swim, and dive underwater. They are tanks, airplanes, boats, and submarines. Hardly any other organism, much less birds, can do this.

Most people overlook ducks because they’re so common: the same reason they ignore the glories of the onion. But take a look at this “ordinary” hen.

First, the well-sculpted and sensitive beak, able to gently nibble corn from a human hand or, with quick strikes, peck another duck to death. It’s lined with “teeth” so that it can take in mouthfuls of water and mud and squeeze out all but the edible stuff (like a baleen whale).

And those beautiful brown eyes, which you can see only when you get close to one.

The feathers and their patterns are works of art: perfect for camouflage in the vegetation, speckled, mottled, and striped in white and brown.

There’s the violet-blue speculum, whose iridescent hue changes with the angle of the light, and is lined with white feathers. Who knows what it’s for? (Biologists don’t, but they can make up hypotheses.)

The sturdy orange feet are set back on the body: a position not optimal for walking (ergo, ducks “waddle”), but perfect for swimming.

Finally, the perfect alignment of the flight feathers, layered atop each other, with the big primaries at the ends of the wings, able to take the ducks high in the air and fly at 55 miles per hour from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta.

Oh, and the end: the stiff tail feathers, which hide the oil gland beneath, a gland the duck uses to groom and waterproof herself. They can be spread out as a warning and used as a rudder in flight.

This is a perfect and a beautiful bird. (Click on photo to enlarge her.)

Sunday ducks

September 5, 2021 • 1:30 pm

We haven’t had a duck report in a long while, and I apologize. Things have been busy upstairs, but calm at the pond, and the last week’s weather was a delight for both ducks and their staff.

We have a stable population of 10-12 ducks now, all hens except for one obstreperous drake who tries to get everyone’s food. It may be Shmuley, but we’re not sure, and we’re all mad at him because he’s greedy. Otherwise, there is Honey, who has come and gone sporadically, but is now here until she finishes molting (she can’t fly until she grows her feathers in), and also a molting Coco, who reared her small brood of three up to flight. They’re mostly gone now, as are all the other babies we’ve had this year.

There are also about four molting ducks, who we’re feeding until their flight feathers are full sized. We don’t feed the other itinerant, undocumented ducks so they’ll be prompted them to leave, presumably to the “staging areas” where ducks gather before their Big Fall Migration. The University is planning to dredge and redo the pond soon, but they don’t give us information about it.

Here’s Honey on August 13 in full molt; you can see that, compared to the second photo, her primary (flight) feathers have not yet grown in. But it’s been three weeks since this photo was taken, and she’s able to fly now. 

Here she is from August of last year, and you can see those big primary feathers crossing over her tail:

Coco has been an excellent mother, staying always with her brood of three until they flew away. Here she is on August 13 with her three babies. They’re napping, but she was always standing guard over them (and their genes, of course). We may name her “Mother of the Year.” Here she is on August 13.

And to show you have big they’ve grown, here they were on June 27. It’s about six to seven weeks from birth till flying.

Resting next to mom a long time ago. It makes me proud to think that I might have helped those little yellow balls of fluff develop into mighty ducks able to fly south for the winter.

As always, the ducks get frisky after lunch, and, if it’s not too hot, engage in vigorous bouts of “zoomies,” which involves splashing, flapping wings, diving, and some flying. Here’s a video showing their frolics on August 24.

If you hang around and watch ducks, you’ll see that they’re fastidious creatures, spending hours grooming themselves, oiling their feathers to keep themselves waterproof, and generally making themselves immaculate. Here’s a pair tending to their feather raiment:

Every year we get a “trick duck”: one who can do some kind of performance. Last year it was Ginger, who we trained to hop up on the metal fence to get food. This year it’s Cindy, who from the outset was a sweet and gentle hen, and approached us a lot. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that we could feed her from our open hand. The result: she’s the best-fed duck on the pond. We all love her.  Here’s a video of Cindy eating from a hand; notice how gently she takes the pellets.

One of the six members of Team Duck, Marie Schilling, feeding Cindy. Cindy and Marie are BFFs. (Cindy has also learned to fly onto the bridge to get fed.)

A formal portrait of Cindy:

Another duck named Gretchen has also learned Cindy’s trick, and will eat from a hand, but using hard and rapid repeating pecks. They can hurt! We don’t like Gretchen as much as we do Cindy, but we do indulge her from time to time out of masochism.

Sadly, Frisky the male wood duck left about three weeks ago; we had him on and off for about two weeks. He was a lovely thing, but we never got to see him go through his full molt and develop that big green crest on his head. I’m sure this is the same male who was here last year, as he knew what a duck pellet was from the outset (he didn’t last year), and also behaved the same way (see below).

Just like he did last year, after meals Frisky would go straight to the South Duck Island and perch on a cedar knee, surveying the pond. It’s this identical behavior that convinced us that the same woodie had returned this year.

We mustn’t forget the turtles. As I reported before, two of them dug nests and deposited eggs by the pond edge, carefully scraping soil over the nests so they were invisible. Greg got very excited when he heard this, as red-eared sliders hardly ever breed this far north: it’s too cold. Greg made a trip down from Wisconsin to photograph the nests and gently uncover them until we could be sure there were eggs there. We measured them accurately and then Greg covered them up again.

I’ll be watching the nest sites over the year; it’s possible the eggs may hatch before fall, but neither Greg nor I are hopeful that there will be any hatching. If there is, we’ll write a note for some fifth-rate herpetology journal that documents this kind of thing. (Certainly all the turtles we have in the pond were put there by people who wanted to get rid of them; there has been no sign that they’ve produced babies as we never see tiny turtles.)

Greg photographing the nest:

A turtle egg. As soon as we ascertained that there were eggs there, we stopped digging and covered the nest up. We suspect there will be about half a dozen eggs in each of the two nests.

A rare perching on our “duck fence”, designed to give the babies an undisturbed place to rest and dry out. (Thanks to Facilities for putting it up, and for making the sign!).

Love the ducks, but don’t disturb them!

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 16, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today’s photos come from Jamie Blilie, though the notes were written by his father James. Click on the photos to enlarge them.  And send in your wildlife/street/landscape photos, please!

Here’s another lot from our wildlife photographer, my son Jamie, age 17.  He captured these in about 10 minutes on the pond behind our house, yesterday afternoon (12-Jul-2021).  We are in Ramsey County, outside St. Paul, Minnesota. We have amazing wildlife (our bird list seen from the house fills three columns on letter-sized paper, single spaced) even though we are only 20 minutes by road from both downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul).

My wife and I were enjoying our back deck after lunch and suddenly there were three otters (Lontra canadensis) swimming around, cavorting (as otters do – it must be fun to be an otter), and hunting vigorously.  We saw them eating many small fish.  We’ve seen single otters in the pond before, but never three at once.  I guess that they are mother and two young offspring.

We called Jamie out and he got some good photos.  (Otters move fast and they are mostly under water.)

First the otters.  One swimming away from our shore, one looking back at us, and one on the far side, munching an unlucky fish: I think a Black Bullhead (Ameiurus melas).  This end of our pond has been alive with hunters:  Herons, Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon), Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus; they nest in the park on the other side of the pond every summer), and Norther Pike (Esox lucius; of which Jamie has caught (and released) many this summer)

Next a shot of our resident Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), who is sitting very still and flattened to the ground just at the edge of the water until the otters leave!  His burrow is very nearby, just underwater on that far bank.

Next, two shots of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one with his crest raised high.  These nest in the trees along the pond and seem to bring off a successful brood (I’m sure a series of pairs) every year.  (I think these were from the same day; but not 100% sure.)

Finally, a proud mother Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), guarding her second (or third?) brood of the summer. She stood guard over them as the walked around the edge of the pond, just at the water line, busily munching up something they really liked, perhaps insects.  They walked about 100 or so yards as we watched them.  Hungry little ducklings!

 Jamie’s equipment:  Nikon D5600, Sigma 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 5, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send me moar photos, plz. Thanks!

Today’s batch of photos is part 2 of a contribution from from reader Mark Otten (part 1 here), whose IDs and captions are indented. You can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius)  This photo was taken by my wife Dianne.

Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens).

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

Female wood duck (Aix sponsa) and 7 of her grown ducklings sharing a log with two red-eared slider turtles (Trachemys scripta).  The adult female is the fifth duck from the right.

Canada goose (Branta canadensis) at dusk gliding toward a landing.

Silhouette of a female blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis).

Eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) in an amur honeysuckle shrub (Lonicera mackii).

Which of these ducks is not like the others?

August 4, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Frisky the Wood Duck, who I’ve now concluded is the same duck as last year’s Frisky, but who hasn’t yet molted into his gorgeous plumage, returned to Botany Pond last night and is well integrated with the other mallards. He tends to avoid them at feeding time, because they’re much larger than he is, but he’s fast and dextrous, and has no problem getting a full meal. (His speed and dexterity in fact helped give him his name.)

Late this morning, however, I found Frisky lazing on the pond bank with other mallards, happily enjoying each other’s company. As one member of Team Duck said, “Frisky thinks he’s a mallard!”  Well, we don’t know what Frisky really thinks, but he’s certainly well in with the other species:

A wood duck (Frisky?) is here

August 3, 2021 • 8:45 am

Last year, toward the end of the duck season, three Wood ducks (Aix sponsa) showed up at Botany Pond. The two males were named Frisky and Blockhead (Frisky was lively, Blockhead a bit thick) and a female named Ruth, whom Frisky courted. During the few weeks that they were here, Frisky and Blockhead molted into full, resplendent color, while Ruth took off early. Then, with the fall, they were gone.

Yesterday we had our first “woodie” of the season arrive at Botany Pond, and I swear that it might be Frisky—back again. I say this for three reasons. First, it’s a male. Second, he immediately recognized that duck pellets were food and began scarfing them up, eating a ton. (Last year it took the woodies a day or so to cotton on to the fact that they could eat the pellets.) Finally, after dinner the new duck immediately took up residence on a cypress “knee” on the South Duck Island—the very same spot where Frisky used to sit last year. (Do note, though, that Wood ducks are perching ducks, so this could be a coincidence.)

Well, you can be the judge. Here are four pictures of the new arrival, who isn’t in full color. I don’t think he’s yet started to molt, or is at the beginning of molting. Or he might be a juvenile who hasn’t yet developed his color, in which case he couldn’t be Frisky. The colors and red eye do show it’s a male.

Wood ducks are America’s most beautiful duck, and, after Mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata), the second most beautiful duck in the world:

Here’s the putative Frisky on his knob after dinner. We’re naming this “Mount Frisky”.

Here are four photos from last year. It’s impossible to tell if this is the same male, but we’re calling the new one “Frisky” nonetheless. This is the original Frisky beginning to grow in his post-molt feathers. The fact that he’s more ragged than our new male makes me think that the new guy is a young, first-year woodie.  If this is the case, he’ll be given a new name—perhaps Frisky, Jr.

A fully molted and beautiful Frisky with his iridescent green and purple crest.

Frisky on his knob last year:

Frisky courting Ruth last year, tenderly nuzzling her neck. I think this is one of the best duck photos I’ve taken at Botany Pond. The sexual dimorphism of color is clear.

Sunday ducks (and turtles)

August 1, 2021 • 1:30 pm

It’s time for an update on Botany Pond and its ducks, and I’ll add a note on the turtles.

The broods of Dorothy and Honey have left (14 total), but Honey is still here. She’s in molt, lacking any primary feathers, and is very irritable, spurning all duck food save mealworms and defrosted frozen corn, which I must toss to her one kernel at a time, as it sinks. She is clearly once again the alpha duck of Botany Pond after a long period of lying low and being timorous after she was repeatedly chased by a nasty drake.

We have two other broods remaining here: that of Shirley Rose, which hatched on May 30 with 12 babies.  One didn’t make it, and one was rehabbed after being attacked. The remaining ten are all grown now, and are leaving one by one. (We had seven this morning.)

The other brood is the tiny one (three ducklings) of Coco, which hatched on June 21, and they are thriving. They are now in the scruffy teenage stage, and we estimate they’ll be able to fly by the end of August, though they often hang around for a while after they can fly. 

There are also about seven “itinerant” ducks, including Honey. We think that several of these are wannabee moms whose nests failed this year (we had at least four nests that had eggs but were either destroyed or didn’t produce offspring).  Several of these ducks are molting, and since they can’t fly for 2-4 weeks during the molt, we take care of them.

This week we’ll concentrate on Coco’s brood, since they’re young, and I’ll say a few words about the turtles, which appear to be mating and nesting by the pond for the first time.

Below: a video of the Duckmeister (me) arriving at the Pond with food for the gang. One bag is for me, the other for one of Team Duck. Shirley Rose’s brood of adults, newly minted ducks, are waiting for their lunch. My jeans are rolled up because they were irritating the lesions from swimmer’s itch that I got when I went into the pond to rescue 6 ducklings dumped there without a mom. The ducks know me and my food bags, and come running when I appear. Shirley Rose is to the right, supervising her brood.

Shirley Rose and her full brood of ten. Three of these babies have now departed for other places. They were a tight band and always stayed together. I think they’re a bit discombobulated now that they’ve lost some of their number and Mom isn’t with them all the time.

If they’re still hungry or want other treats besides duck pellets, they do what they normally do—dabble:

Coco’s babies have grown rapidly from fluffballs to scruffy ducklings. As of today, there’s very little down left on them.

Here they are not all that long ago:

Going up the duck ramp (I’m proud of myself for having devised this, but it was built and bolted to the pond wall by the good people at Facilities). Coco is a great mother and is always supervising her brood, even letting them eat first before she touches a morself.

Napping on North Duck Island. Note the nictitating membranes over the eyes of the sleeping ducklings.

Coco is a very elegant hen with a long, graceful neck:

The adorable down-covered babies have become scruffy teenagers!

Here’s one having a neck and wing stretch:

When they’re on the grass on “Duck Plaza”, I tossed them dry pellets to help teach them how to forage. Here’s a video of that “enrichment feeding,” though, truth be told, they learned it on their own—from watching Mom:

Oy, are they scruffy! Feathers plus down are not a lovely combination.

All the ducks begin practicing diving, preening, and zooming along the water when they’re very young. These are skills that will help them keep clean, evade predators, and learn to fly. Here are two videos by Jean Greenberg  showing these nascent behaviors:

Baby ducks can swim unbelievably fast, which of course they must do to escape predators and to keep up with Mom. Here Mom keeps up with them, having to fly after them as they zoom away.

Here’s Honey, who’s in full molt. She has no primary feathers (the white area is where those feather should be. She’s therefore flightless for a few weeks, and is irritable and picky with her food. But of course I still love her. She’s regaining her status as Alpha Duck by randomly chasing other ducks around the pond (she doesn’t hurt them):

For comparison, here’s a duck with full primary feathers—the big flight feathers sticking out above its rump.  This one is standing on one leg, as some ducks are wont to do:

Finally, we mustn’t forget the turtles. The pond is home to several dozen red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), the only turtle we have. Since Chicago is north of their breeding range, all the turtles are individuals that have been dumped into the pond, likely by owners who don’t want them. Nevertheless, they can still survive the winter by remaining quiescent at the bottom of the pond. Their tenacity is amazing.

This year we saw mating and breeding for the first time. I’ve described mating before, but in the last two weeks we’ve seen two large females digging nests next to the pond edge, laying eggs, and then covering up the eggs—all using their rear feet. Here’s a video of one of them laying eggs in a freshly-dug hole. (I don’t know why they don’t use their front feet.)

They cover up the holes well, packing the dirt down with their rear feet. Here’s a finished nest to the left of the six-inch ruler. Greg is coming down next week to check on the nests, and may excavate them a bit. (The eggs will not hatch in Chicago temperatures.)

Finally, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked at the pond is, “Do the turtles and ducks bother each other?” And the answer is “No, they pretty much ignore each other.”

Occasionally a duck will be startled when a turtle bumps it in the water (turtles will eat duck food), but they do have an amusing mutualism.  Sometimes a hungry duck will nibble the algae off a turtle’s back. I regard this as beneficial for both species since the duck gets its vegetables and the turtle gets a haircut (algae probably impede swimming).

Algae-nibbling doesn’t happen often, but in this video I managed to capture it.

And that’s the latest report from Botany Pond, where the drama and fun never cease.

Wood duck romance in 2020

July 23, 2021 • 1:30 pm

The end of last year’s duck season was graced by the presence at Botany Pond of three itinerant wood ducks (Aix sponsa), who didn’t breed here but hung around for a couple of weeks eating the chow meant for the mallards.

Wood ducks are among the world’s most beautiful ducks (second only, perhaps, to mandarin ducks), and we were pleased to see the males molt into full coloration while they were here. We had two males, Frisky and Blockhead (the latter named because he was slow to learn the food regimen), and a lovely female named Ruth.  Frisky would court Ruth, gently nibbling on her head and neck, but because mating season was well over, it was only to form a pair bond. Actually, Ruth left before the two males did.

But here are some photos of Frisky courting Ruth, and I’ve posted only one of these before. Enjoy the love. (The males, of course, are the brightly colored ones.)

Click the photos to enlarge them.

Sleepy ducks: