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.

Christmas ducks

December 31, 2020 • 2:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

On Christmas Day, I went down to the harbor in Racine, Wisconsin, and saw a male and female pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) amidst a group of Canada geese (Branta canadensis).

Canada geese and mallards, Racine harbor, Wisconsin, December 25, 2020.

Canada geese were migratory in this part of Wisconsin when I first moved here (1992), disappearing for a month or two at the height of winter. In even earlier times, they were not even breeding here, just passing through on the way to and from their more northern breeding grounds. Now they are year-round residents, with pairs setting up breeding territories starting in February-March. (On the campus of the  University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the nesting sites are atop buildings, a shift from the ground nesting habits they had in the 1990s.) They join up in flocks after the breeding season, frequenting open water (as at Lake Michigan, shown here) and farm fields, which have unharvested corn and other food supplies. I’m not sure what has caused them to stay year round, but the local increase of development– leading to higher temperatures (heat islands), more open water, year-round lawn grass growth in some areas, and more handouts from people– along with global warming– leading to higher temperatures in general– may be contributing.

As I approached to get a picture, I realized there were many more mallards than a pair– 17, in fact, among the 23 geese. Also, the mallards were much more apprehensive about the approach of a person on shore. As you can see, they are all streaming away, while the geese remain serenely contemplative.

Canada geese and mallards, Racine harbor, Wisconsin, December 25, 2020.

Ducks of San Diego

February 7, 2019 • 1:15 pm

by Greg Mayer

On my recent visit to San Diego, I got to see one of my favorite ducks, a merganser. Mergansers are fish-eating diving ducks. Here’s a Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator), diving in San Diego Bay, viewed from the Coronado Aquatics Center, on the Coronado Strand.

Mergansers have bills adapted to catch their prey, which are quite different from those of other ducks or, indeed, birds in general. Instead of the broad, flattened bill typical of ducks (the origin of the term ‘duckbilled’), their bills are long and narrow. And, though all modern birds lack teeth, there are a series of tooth-like serrations on the bills of mergansers which help them grab fish, frogs, and the like.

Skulls of a mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), top, and a merganser, bottom. 

There are some geese that have similar structures on their bills, but they are more like transverse grooves rather than serrations. Geese are typical Anseriformes (the order to which ducks, geese, and swans belong) in their feeding habits, and do not catch fish; it is interesting that the only birds I know of with these approximations to teeth are in that order.

Close up of the bill of a merganser, showing tooth-like serrations.

(The merganser skull shown above is probably one of the two species found in Wisconsin, either the Hooded Merganser [Lophodytes cucullatus; resident breeder in SE Wisconsin] or the Common Merganser [Mergus merganser; breeds from northern Wisconsin up through the taiga belt of Canada and Alaska, but winters in SE Wisconsin].)

I also saw a Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), another diving duck, also at the Aquatics Center. The body of water here is Glorietta Bay, a part of San Diego Bay enclosed by Coronado “Island”, the Strand which connects Coronado “Island” to the mainland (the reason Coronado “Island” is not an island), and a landfill extending from the Strand on which a Navy base is located. The scoters have broad bills, but they’re higher in the back (unlike mallards), and they feed on mollusks.

The bird in the video above is a male, as you can tell from the white markings on its head and neck. I saw several more Surf Scoters while sailing in San Diego Bay off National City, flying just above the water in small groups, but unfortunately did not get any photos. Both of these species of duck breed mostly on fresh water in the taiga and high arctic, and winter along the sea coasts, so it was a rare opportunity for me to see them.

On two visits to Balboa Park, at the Lily Pond in front of Botanical Building, there were Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Jerry’s favorite species of duck.

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Balboa Park, San Diego, California, January 16 2019; note the female sleeping on shore amongst the flowers.

I have often noted an excess of males when observing Mallards (often two males with a single female), as in the photo above, but I don’t know why that’s the case; a pair walked about near the pond.

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Balboa Park, San Diego, California, January 16 2019.

As Cornell’s All About Birds reminds us, not everything that floats is a duck, and on a later visit to Balboa Park, I photographed this American Coot (Fulica americana). There were also more Mallards about that day—I counted 22 at the Pond.

American Coot (Fulica americana), Balboa Park, San Diego, California, January 18, 2019.

The coot later went ashore and fell asleep. In looking at photos of the Mallards from my first visit, I noticed a coot in the background on the pond (first photo above)– probably the same individual. (You can find out more about the birds of Balboa Park at the Birds of Balboa Park page.)

American Coot (Fulica americana), Balboa Park, San Diego, California, January 18, 2019.

The Lilly Pond did have a few lily pads.

Lily pads, Balboa Park, San Diego, California , January 18, 2019.