Readers’ wildlife photos

December 24, 2022 • 8:15 am

We have a few odds and ends today in the runup to the Big Holiday.  Click the pictures to enlarge them; readers’ captions are indented.

First, some ducks from Steve Barnes.

These are a handful of photos taken around Bellingham and Birch Bay, Washington, during my brief time with a Sony DSLR some years ago.  I presume these are mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), and similarly presume confirmation or correction will be near-reflexive on this site.

From Bill Robertson:

Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) will go to great lengths to subvert squirrel-proof bird feeders. This individual jumped about 3 feet (≈ 1 m.) from another feeder with peppered seed mix to get to this one. It was snowing the first day, and then the next day was quite pleasant, and the noshing was apparently quite agreeable.

The next night I surprised a raccoon reconnoitering the possibilities, so now I bring this one in overnight.

The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is not particularly sharp–I fear it may not meet your accustomed standards–but he apparently feels the same way I do about the snow.

Bill also sent two photos of Turkey vultures: (Cathartes aura)

I use a Sony a7RIV, with a Sony 200-600mm zoom, and for these a 1.4x teleconverter as well.

. . . and from Reese Vaughan:

Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanilla, in the remains of my Passion flower vine.

What they’ve done to Botany Pond

December 17, 2022 • 11:15 am

After working for a couple of weeks, a crew of men (no women) have now sucked all the mud off the bottom of Botany Pond, exposing the cement that’s to be inspected for cracks. They’ve also exposed something I didn’t know about: there are barriers of cement in both the pond and channel, but they were so deep under the muck (there must have been three or four feet of mud) that I never detected them. Nor do I know what they’re for.

Plans call for inspection of cement, filling of cracks, and, I hope, regrading the cement so that there are at least two sloping areas where ducklings can exit the pond. Facilities doesn’t seem keen on making any provisions at all for the ducks next year, but we have an advisory biology committee now, consisting of four members, who will recommend amenities for the ducks.  The next step after cement repair is re-filling the pond with soil.

Then, next Spring and Summer, the pond will be landscaped, and if all goes well, will be filled with water in October—just in time for migrating ducks to stop by. They also need to add microfauna to the pond: snails, aquatic animals like worms, and so on, for without those the pond will be sterile, supporting neither fish, turtles, nor ducks.

Here’s the channel: it’s much deeper than I imagined—almost as tall as I am. I never touched bottom or even detected the barriers when I was in there rescuing ducklings.  I’m not sure if the pipes are new. Notice the two cement barriers. What are they for? The pond drain is to the right, at the end of the channel.

A panoramic view of the work. It’s below freezing today, and I feel sorry for the workers. I hope they get paid well! (It’s Saturday; they work six days a week.) The channel is in the foreground, the main pond in the background. Erman, on whose ledges many ducks have bred, is the building to the left.

We will have a duckless season next Spring and Summer, which is sad, as I may not get to see Honey at all.

The Botany Pond renovation

November 24, 2022 • 10:45 am

The renovation of Botany Pond began in late October when they fenced off the entire area and then put traps in the water to get the turtles. They captured 11 large ones, which I think is most of the population we had (five others died during a mini-epidemic). Sadly, they haven’t recovered the two babies we had.  But another one turned up three days ago after the pond had been fully drained, probably buried in the muck. It was alive and in good shape, and is now with its pondmates at the wildlife rehabilitator’s.

It took about a week to drain the pond.

Now, workmen are slowly removing all the dirt, several feet thick, at the bottom of the pond. You’ll see the process in the photos below, but when that’s done, they’ll fill in the cracks in the cement (bottom and sides) that caused the pond to leak water. It really does need a good cleaning

The schedule calls for it to be fully repaired (hopefully with new areas for ducks and new ramps for ducklings) by next summer, and then landscaped and maybe modified for the ducks and ducklings (fingers crosse). The  refill with water is supposed to happen next October. At that time, they’ll restock the pond with the necessary microfauna (snails, copepods, and other stuff that can serve as food for ducks and turtles), and perhaps a duck or so may fly in to see what’s happening. Duck breeding will presumably commence until about March of 2024, as they don’t breed in fall.

This post shows you what the pond looks like now.

Below: The channel drained. Many a duckling was fed at the circular end below, where it was sheltered and they could get close to us.

 

The freshly-drained pond seen from the south side. It was still muddy on the bottom (it’s drier now), and you can see the cement “rings” designed for planting with trees and smaller vegetation:

The pond drained and surrounded by a wire fence. We’re looking south from the sidewalk that separates the main pond (left) and the channel (right):

They brought in two big trucks with hoses to suck the mud out of the pond and expose the cracked cement walls and bottom:

The hose truck. I think the other one (not visible) is where the dirt is put and carted away.

This shows the cross-section after the removal of most of the dirt. The water level was only about a foot below the ledge, so you can see how much dirt had accumulated at the bottom. The water was probably up to my waist, and the silt so thick that my feet never touched bottom.

Sucking up the muck. One guy breaks it up with an instrument that looks like a long pick, while the other uses a hose to suck the loosened dirt into the truck. It’s a big and onerous job.

I am of course very sad, though this needed to be done. But will Honey come back next fall to say “hi”, or will she come back to breed in 2024? We will miss a whole duck season. At least the waterfowl are all gone and presumably safe somewhere else (preferably in the southern U.S.), and all the fish and turtles have been rescued and are being kept by the rehabber.

More reports as things happen. . .

Readers’ wildlife photos

November 15, 2022 • 8:15 am

Send in your photos, please!

Today’s batch, from Graham Wallis in New Zealand, features DUCKS, my favorite bird. Even better—it involves rescue of baby ducks!  Graham’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

My wife and I live out on the Otago Peninsula, NZ, surrounded by steep pasture and some native bush.

In October, small numbers of Paradise (shel)duck (Tadorna variegata) start to come and go on the hill opposite, presumably sorting out mating pairs. The species is unusual in that the female is more striking with its white head. Curiously too, there is often an excess of females, almost like a reverse lek. This seems to be the case wherever you see them at whatever time of year. I don’t know whether it reflects true sex ratio, or that females are just more noticeable, or whether there is a pool of males hiding out somewhere else.

Strangely for ducks, they will often perch on rocks or the branches of the large Monterey Cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) that dot our landscape.

Six years ago, Lise went down to the front gate to check the mail and two little humbugs came running up to her. Lorenz was right! There is a small pond down the road, and these two were presumably late hatchlings that got left behind. We never saw the parents or sibs.

Lise gave the “little ones” a box with blankets to snuggle under, and fed them mashed peas.

After 9 days, we gave them their first pond: a shallow roasting tray (they didn’t appreciate the irony). They took to it like… well, you know the rest. This also served as their christening. The 2016 US election was on so you can guess the names: Donald & Hillary, of course.

They soon needed a bath upgrade:

After 16 days, we made a small enclosure to let them graze on the grass:

Here they are at 20 days, enjoying hanging out in the sun:

By 30 days, they were losing their down and enjoyed foraging through plant pots and their old bath.

By 6 weeks, they began to look like adults, though one lagged a bit:

One morning, at 8 weeks old, they flew a short distance across the front of the section, then next door to harass the domesticated ducks at feeding time. The next day they flew away, and we never (knowingly) saw them again. But every time we see a pair of paradise ducks, we say: “Hello, little ones”.

Although it was sad to see them go, it was probably just as well. We know people who have reared paradise ducks which never left, and became quite a problem, being aggressive to visitors—rather like geese.

A visit to Botany Pond by Greg Mayer

October 10, 2022 • 11:00 am

by Greg Mayer

I paid a visit to Botany Pond last Friday (7 October). It had rained much of the day before I got to Hyde Park in mid-afternoon, but the sun had started to come out and there was more going on than I thought there would be. The water was high– covering the “ring” islands next to the cypress islands– perhaps from the recent rain.

A sunny corner of Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

First, quite a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were there.

Mallards in Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

There were 22 of them, evenly divided between hens and drakes, though I think the exact equality was coincidental. There did seem to be some male/female pairs, but not all had a match.

A mallard hen and drake at Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

Most of the drakes seemed to be in full nuptial plumage, such as the following fellow,

Mallard drake in nuptial plumage at Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

but a couple had either not yet completed the fall molt, or were just weird.

Mallard drake with the sides of its head brownish at Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

Members of Team Duck arrived a bit after I did, and they confirmed that while some matched pairs were present among the ducks, a number were not in a committed relationship.

Team Duck in action at Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

Several of the named ducks were present, including Honey, Bernie, Billy, Ginger, and Gooseduck. I tried to take a picture of Honey, but they were moving around quite a bit. I’m not sure if this is her; the triangular spot at the base of the bill doesn’t seem quite right, but Jerry should be able to tell one way or the other.

[JAC: This is not Honey.]

Maybe Honey? Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

I had gone to Botany Pond with a particular interest in the turtles there, which include two subspecies of slider, the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) and the yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta). The latter is represented by a single individual, not seen on this visit. Despite the rain having stopped not long before, there was one very active large male that came out on to the rock “beach” to sun for a bit. He was in and out of the water a few times.

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

This male was very dark. In the water, though, you could see more of his shell coloration, as well as the long front ‘nails’ and long, thick tail that identify his sex.

Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) in Botany Pond, University of Chicago, 7 October 2022.

There was a second large male red-ear in the water, but he did not come out, and I did not get a picture of that second turtle; he was much greener.

End of the season at Botany Pond

October 9, 2022 • 11:00 am

It’s been a tough year at Botany Pond, mostly because Audrey the Mother Duck, who had 12 babies, was a homicidal hen bent on killing any duckling in the pond that wasn’t hers. And that meant that any mom and babies coming to the pond after her were doomed (she was the first to breed).  In the past we’ve had up to three broods of different ages coexisting pretty peacefully in the pond. Not this year!

After Audrey killed one or two interloper ducklings, I had to make the hard choice to remove every “undocumented duckling” (as we called them) who came to the pond with their mother. The choice was heartbreaking, as it involved separating ducklings from their mothers breaking up a new family, but also ensuring that ducklings wouldn’t be slaughtered en masse.  This meant that this summer I had to go into the pond four or five times and, always helped by people onshore (and a few stalwarts who also went in with me), capture the babies with a butterfly net, dry them off and keep them warm and together,  warm, and then take them to the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, who would take them to Willowbrook Wildlife Center for rehab, rearing, and release. Many thanks to CBCM and Dorothy, their local contact, who helped us immensely

All told, I rescued 31 ducklings—every single one that wasn’t immediately pecked to death (those were only about 2 or 3). Going into the pond always gives me a case of swimmer’s itch, since that parasite is carried by ducks, and of course I got prettyr banged up by the hidden underground rocks and lunges for ducklings. Here’s what my legs looked like after one of my final rescues. The rash and intolerable itching begin about two weeks later.

My legs after one particularly onerous rescue.

Also, all 12 of Audrey’s babies fledged (our motto is “no duckling left behind”), but we couldn’t prevent one from flying into the library glass across the street, killing itself. We gave it a dignified burial with a stone over its grave in the backyard of a member of Team Duck.

And we suffered the loss of a member of Team Duck: Richard Cook, who died of pancreatic cancer on August 31. He and his wife Karen were instrumental in helping tend the ducks for several years, and it’s not the same without him.

But, looking on the bright side, many people found solace at the pond and watching its attendant wildlife, including, of course, mallards and turtles.  In the last several weeks I’ve met two first-year undergraduates who came here specifically because of Botany Pond, one of them writing her admissions essay on the Pond. The other first-year has now joined Team Duck and has a remarkable way with ducks, so much so that we call her the “Duck Whisperer.”

Sadly, the Management (i.e., Facilities) are going to drain the pond any day now and then dredge it, removing debris as well as patching up cracks in the cement on the side that allow leakage underground. This means that we will not have duck season next year, since this treatment will likely take up a year. (To be honest, the Pond does need a do-over.)  And since the pond will be dredged, we are desperate to ensure that the turtles, who will soon be hibernating in the mud, will be saved—and perhaps returned somehow in the fall of 2023 or spring of 2024.

Here are a few photos of the waning days of duck season and the present incarnation of the Pond.

Two of the three members of the diminished Team Duck: the Duck Whisperer is in the foreground. They are feeding some of the 4-20 ducks that come daily (we have no idea where they go when they leave), but many return every day. But Honey has been here constantly for several weeks, but I was told that she wasn’t there yesterday.

Below: One of the few ducks that has become tame enough to eat from our hand. This one is Billie, a hen with a somewhat misshapen bill that she can’t close completely. This makes her a bit less able to pick up duck pellets but in general she does fine. We of course give extra attention to injured or “off” ducks like Billie.

Billie eating:

Another injured hen was Gigi, who came to the pond with a serious leg injury, so bad that she couldn’t walk, and was clearly in pain. (She was truly a Lame Duck.) We found her floating in the pond with her tail in the water and head resting on the surface–she looked almost dead. We singled her out for special food and attention, and, over the last month or so, she’s recovered almost completely: she can run, walk, flies like a champ, and the swelling on her leg (a calcified knot, I think) is almost gone. This makes me very happy.

When it got colder, the turtles took every advantage of the sunshine by climbing on the rocks and extending their necks and limbs to get as warm as they could. We call this Turtle Yoga. Three examples:

And so it’s farewell to Duck Season, and to the pond and ducks we all love. They will be back—probably in the Spring of 2024—but will Honey be among the mallards? She’s been here six years in a row and I am keen to see her again. Wild mallards don’t live forever (the average is 5-10 years, and she’s already at least seven.

I’m told that the Pond is still intact, and they haven’t yet fenced it off.  In my absence, Team Duck is looking after the mallards who remain and (we hope) will soon be flying south.

They have disabled the “On Botany Pond” live feed, I suppose for the renovation, so you won’t be able to watch the place online.

Honey is a Senior Duck

September 25, 2022 • 9:15 am

As I reported during this duck season, Honey showed up in Botany Pond at the beginning of the spring (March), but then flew off somewhere else for the breeding season.  I don’t know whether she had a brood or not, much less where she spent the summer.

But then in later July she came back to molt in the safety of Botany Pond, for which I was touched and grateful. Here she is molting: you can see that she has no primary wing feathers:

Below are two pictures of her taken in late July; I used these to positively ID her from her bill markings (the dark triangles at the corners of her bill, as well as the other markings, are diagnostic of Honey):

But in the last two weeks or so I noticed that Honey is looking OLD.  Well, she’s at least six, and probably at least seven since I first met her six years ago when she was in the pond with four ducklings. The lifespan of a mallard is about 5-10 years in the wild, but can be up to 15 years in captivity—and I regard her as in “partial captivity” since she’s in a safe pond and is well fed.

Regardless, to me it looked as if her eye were not as bright and the feathers were mussed on her head. I was (and am) worried that she’s at the end of her lifespan, and (if they dredge the pond this year, giving us a duckless year in 2023), I might never see her again.  Here’s what she looked like yesterday.

Concerned, I showed these photos to a duck expert, who told me that although her head isn’t groomed and oiled (and that worries me, too, but didn’t worry the Expert), she looks otherwise healthy, with good feathers and bright eyes. She’s also as obstreperous as ever, chasing the other hens away from the food and eating well herself. She also grooms herself, but what’s with the punk hairdo?

But every time I feed her, I wonder if this will be the last time I see her before she flies away for the fall. Given the pond renovation, it may be two years before I even have a chance to see her again.

For old times’ sake, here’s a photo from two years ago: it’s Honey with her 17 ducklngs after she kidnapped Dorothy’s entire brood and had to tend two broods. (Dorothy re-nested and brought up a second brood of seven).

And every single one of the 17 fledged and left the pond. She is the World’s Best Duck Mother, and surely America’s most famous mallard.

Monday ducks

August 29, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Our ducks numbers are variable—from 5-12 per day—but are not increasing. Sadly, Frisky the wood duck drake appears to have left for good, but Honey is here, and now deigns to eat duck pellets (she previously would eat only corn and mealworms). She seems to have snagged a boyfriend, too: the biggest drake in the pond (of course).

On and off we’re visited by a hen with an injured leg (GiGi which stands for G. G. which stands for “Gritty Gertie”), but her leg is improving, much to my relief. And we have Billie, a duck with a bill that she can’t fully close. But she eats very well (and from a hand). Billie also has acquired a drake, whom we call “Bernie”.

All of the young seem to have fledged, though we may have a few of Audrey’s drake offspring here. It’s hard to tell.

The pond still has ten or eleven turtles; the epidemic that killed off five of them several weeks ago appears to have abated.

So, some photos of Botany Pond and its residents. First, her Highness, Honey the Hen.

Front view:

Head in the water:

Left side (believe me, you’re going to see all of her!):

And the right side. Isn’t she a lovely hen? This may be the last season I see her. At least six years old, she’s now a Senior Mallard. Note that on both sides of her bill there’s a black triangle, which is diagnostic for her. (So is her behavior, which is aggressive.)

Swimming:

Honey and her drake, who is molting and thus is not a first-year drake. Isn’t he handsome (and huge)? We don’t yet have a name for him. The drake, with the yellow bill and head becoming green, is to the left:

Here are Billie and Bernie. You can see that her bill is slightly open (that’s permanent). Bernie may be a first-year drake. Although she was named after her wonky bill, she’s now become quite vociferous, so “Billie” could also be short for “Billie Holiday”:

Billie is a sweet duck, one of our favorites, and I worried about whether a drake would find her attractive. But apparently one has—Bernie (named after my uncle):

Billie has learned to eat out of our hands, though she’s a sloppy eater because she can’t fully close her bill. That means she spills a lot of pellets, but it also means she gets extra food. Look at that mess on the ground. (She immediately cleans it up.)

Mallards are not dumb. After watching Billie get fed this way, her new swain Bernie took to eating from the hand as well, and at the same time! He’s the first drake that I’ve seen eat from a human hand at Botany Pond. Here’s the loving couple dining together.

And we mustn’t forget the turtles. They’re all healthy now, and we have at least ten. Yesterday was warm and sunny, and they fought for a place in the sun, extending their heads and limbs to warm up:

Finally, two artsy “reflection” pictures:

Soon the season will end; there will be no more ducks as they start draining and dredging the pond. We’re all worried about what will become of the turtles, and whether they will kill or injure any fish or turtles as they dredge.

And will I ever see Honey again?

A mallard chinwag

August 22, 2022 • 12:45 pm

While we have an occasion quack or squawk when the ducks are worked up at feeding time, a spontaneous “quackfest” like this one, which happened yesterday morning, is of unknown significance.

What are they saying to each other.  “I’m alive”? Or something more complex.  We don’t know and never will.  But turn the sound up to hear the multiple quacks and grunts.

Notice, too, that Frisky takes part in the activities, though we’ve never heard him utter a sound.

More chinwag.

Frisky Friday

August 19, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Our population of ducks at Botany Pond is low: we have about five or six leftover offspring from Audrey’s brood (she herself is long gone), “Billie”, a duck with a beak that won’t close completely (he’s fine, though), a couple of itinerant drakes who are aggressive and unwanted, a duck with an injured leg (I’m very concerned about her), and “Rusty”, a hen with a bright orange bill and orange on her tail.

Sadly, Honey has left the pond, but she left well fed and fully feathered. I’ll miss her, but she did come back to the safety of the pond to molt. I wonder where she goes?

And then, to our delight, the wood duck male we named “Frisky” (Aix sponsa), who’s been here every year for three years, is gracing us with his presence. He’s alone this time (two years ago he had a girlfriend named Ruth and a mate named Blockhead), but he’s hanging around, eating everything he can and resting, as usual, on top of the “Sacred Knob” of one of the Bald Cedar trees. He’s excellent at nabbing pellets in the pond and avoiding the larger mallards.

He’s only now beginning to molt, but he’s beautiful, and his antics—he’s agile and has never been pecked, and sometimes even chases the much larger ducks—keep us endlessly amused.

Here are some photos of Frisky, and, at the end, one from last year showing what he’ll look like when his molt is over. I hope he stays until then.

Preening with a splash:

Shaking himself:

And flapping his wings so fast that the camera can barely capture them. Look at those lovely red eyes!

Looking up:

Frisky on his Sacred Knob, where he always goes to rest. After all, he’s a wood duck.

The “open bill” gesture, which I never saw him use before, is an aggressive action, and one he uses this year when chasing other ducks or warning them off:

Here’s a video by Jean Greenberg showing Frisky splashing and bathing, and then, with a brief flutter of his wings, he mounts the Sacred Knob:

Frisky moves so fast in the water that if you want a good photo, it’s best to take it when he’s on the Knob:

This is his plumage as of yesterday afternoon. It’s lovely, what with the red eyes and beak and the iridescent blue feathers. . . .

. . . but after his molt, he’s going to look like this, growing a crest on his head and his pate turning bright green. His breast will get brown and he’ll also develop more blue on his body feathers and white lines on his head.

This is truly America’s most gorgeous duck (except for Honey).  Photo of Frisky from October, 2020: