So, I like birds. You want to make something of it? But, seriously, I do spend a lot of times watching them. Often I do so at The Bluff, which I wrote about here on 8/6/13. Lately, after my bagel with butter is done in the morning, I drive about a half mile down the road to a pond, big enough so you can't see the whole thing from one spot. It is sometimes a center for dozens, often hundreds of aquatic birds, mostly geese and gulls.
But, I've also seen some more exotic birds there too, One morning I was sipping my coffee when I saw a small flock of duck-like birds land on the water. They were far smaller than even the mallards. They were also very shy of me. Unless they are used to being fed, most birds are shy of humans. But, they know they can fly and if you stay in your car, they also seem to know you aren't coming into the water and stay put. If you get out of your car, they start moving around a bit more and if you get too close, they fly away, except for the geese who expect to be fed and can be quite aggressive. But, this flock of little birds was really keeping their distance. I do have a camera with a long lens, but I often don't keep it in my car. So, I'm left with my camera phone. It's pretty good, but not so good with distance.
Now, I am not one of those people who thinks birds, even crows and some parrots, are smart the way people are. But, they obviously are conscious in some fashion. Everything I know about myself and other humans tells me that some behavior in higher animals at least means they think in a manner of speaking. If it is not so, then I can't imagine what their advanced nervous systems do, or why evolutionarily speaking, humans would develop this trait with largely the same equipment (even if our brains are more advanced), but not other animals at all. They just often seem to behave as if they understand things that seem like they might require some traits of human intelligence or something close to it. I'm not just talking about instinct, which can look like intelligence, but decision making.
These birds - this particular flock I was watching - seemed like they knew I was watching them and was interested in them. They would not come near the shore and seemed to turn away whenever I tried to take a picture with my phone of the distinctive white crest on some of their heads. The birds looked like they were paired off, which I presumed was male and female. That's not unusual, of course, for birds. The males looked very different than the females, which is also not uncommon.
I thought I knew this species, but probably from a book, as they clearly weren't regular visitors to Long Island or at least not as visible to us as many other species are. Something with a weird name - but what the hell was it? I just couldn't remember. Anyway, the photo below is the best shot I could get. Even when I used the telescopic feature on the phone, it started to gray out. Not enough bits.
Still, I could now see the distinctive white pattern on its head and its pointy bill well enough for me to check in some bird books. And very quickly I found it. It is called the hooded mersander. Like many birds, it frequents quite a large area. You can see it better below in a professional picture I found online. The one with the white hood (hence the name) is the male, the smaller one with the hairdo the female. Actually, in my own picture paddling away a little behind her hooded husband was his wife. It was kind of cute. They are diving birds, which always looks so much cooler than the ones who just stick their bill or neck in the water.
I do occasionally meet other people who think this is exciting stuff, but, admittedly, like most of my interests, not that many. Still, I have to think that's because they haven't been paying close attention. Most birds are wonderfully beautiful, and not just the ones with brilliant colors. I mean take a close look at the male and female mersander. Each in their own way is fascinating. Take even a common sparrow with which we are all extremely familiar. If you just glance at it, it is a blur of brown and gray. There are many kinds of sparrows and they are all quite beautiful if you look closely. It's neither just gray or brown but an exotic mix, often with stripes, almost like a fat butterfly, such as this one I took a picture of while waiting for my banker at a drive-in window:
I live on an island, so I come across quite a few aquatic birds. Actually, almost never a duck like the kind we occasionally eat (although on a couple of bike trips I slept near a duck farm. Noisy little bastards. They never shut up all night). But, I see many "duck-like" birds. Mallards, the males with distinctive green heads, frequent the pond.
In warmer weather I see a tremendous variety of birds at the Bluff including terns, plover, herons (a night heron once with its long toreador like ponytail), hawks, osprey, swans (normally 2 or 4, but one day over 30 of them, as if they were having a convention) and once many years ago, a bald eagle. Of course, always gulls.
Below you can see at dawn a double crested cormorant, which spans the globe but is found in America mostly on our eastern coast, sunning itself on a buoy as a swan starts to drift by. The cormorant is one of my favorites, and liked the mersander, a diver. They also spend quite a bit of time spreading their wings like this.
This is an egret, which are plentiful at the Bluff. I'm pretty sure these guys think they are invisible when they are in the bushes, being camouflaged. Maybe they are to other predators, but not to us. They are bright white and very easy to spot.
But, I go there mostly in warm weather. In the fall and winter I spend much more time down the street from where I live, watching the pond. From what I understand you call a body of water a lake or pond based on tradition and nothing else, except at a certain size I think we all say lake - nobody calls Lake Huron a pond. The exception is the tongue and cheek reference to the Atlantic Ocean in "across the pond."
In any event, there are almost always birds at the pond and it has a quiet beauty in display in every season, although fall is most spectacular.
There is regularly a breeding pair of swans at the pond. This year they had two children. The swanlings grow fast, but they look kind of like ugly duckings to tell the truth, just as in the Hans Christian Anderson fable:
Now there are only the two parents and one younger swan, although full grown. He keeps to himself like a petulant teenager. I wonder what happened to his or her brother or sister. I call the one who stayed he and the one who left (or is dead) she. She was full grown too and one day just wasn't there.
The birds at the pond are quite amusing. Occasionally they fight - always intra-species, and I don't like that so much. One day, not so long ago I was sitting in my car having breakfast and reading a book, occasionally lifting my head to watch some mallards near the shore and a sole gull. Gulls are cantankerous and they fight with one another more than the other birds, although perhaps not given their numbers. Suddenly another gull flew over and dived at the one peacefully sitting there. The mallards didn't budge. Wasn't their fight. I watched the gulls fight for a few seconds and decided I did not need my peace broken. It is understood I am sheriff there, at least when you come to the sandy shore, and I got out of my car and yelled - as I do more and more these days - "Hey, you guys, knock it off!"
The gulls stopped fighting immediately, as if they understood me. But the interesting thing to me was that the mallards did not react at all, even though they were just as close, as if they understood that I was yelling at the gulls and not them. Is that possible? Well, I experimented not too much later, getting out of my car and yelling at some mallards (there is no one else there to see me carry on like this) and they didn't fly off, but quickly paddled away, likely thinking, "What got into him today?"
There are more sea gulls than anything else at the pond, usually, although often many geese too. When I was much younger I read a best seller called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It is a fantasy about a rebellious individualistic bird, with lots of meaning for us featherless bipeds. I have tried the author's other books and can't do it. But, JLS was superb, in my view. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate the flying acrobatics and individual natures of all animals.
The gulls mostly co-exist, sometimes, if it is cold, all sitting on the ice bunched up close like penguins, but they do fight with each other more than the other birds, particularly over food. One day I was watching as a flock of them sitting on the ice. I notice one of them flying with something hanging out of its mouth. It was too far to see well, perhaps one hundred yards away, but it was evidently a fish, maybe 3 inches long. Behind the lucky gull was an angry one, or so I thought, chasing it to try to get the fish. I've seen this many times and it didn't strike me as unusual.
They wheeled, turned and swooped just like in JLS. It is really impressive, like watching the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds fly. Eventually, maybe 5 minutes or so later, the chaser gave up. Time and time again, he got close but couldn't quite make the other drop the little dangling fish. So, he dropped down to the ice a short distance from the bunch, perhaps to recuperate. The victorious gull, fish still dangling flew almost out of sight, but then circled back. Obviously, or it seemed to me obvious, he would land and gulp down his own prey. But, when he came to land, it was within ten feet of the other gull. Didn't they recognize one another? Didn't he know what he was in for? Atttttackkkk! And away they went again, fiercer than last time, but never even a glancing blow. Finally when the hunter was exhausted he went back down. I was exhausted just watching a demolition derby where there was always a last split second escape.
And then it happened again. And again. The fourth time I realized, either they were playing, or the first one was teasing like crazy. I did not know birds did that. If that was not what was happening, those gulls are loonier than loons.
Recently I saw a little gull swan drama too. The now full grown swan child was floating on icy water completely still. He didn't move for a long time. I wondered if he was dead. His head was coiled around his body. I have seen swans do all kinds of interesting things, including the mother carry her children on her back while swimming, but never sleep like that.
I wasn't the only one who suspected a dead duck(like bird). A gull flew over and landed on the ice about 10 feet away from it. It watched and watched, likely thinking - "Can I eat that?" But he hesitated while another gull flew over. I thought I was going to be sick if anything happened. The second gull waited a few minutes too. What was the tipping point? I don't know, but finally the second one took off in the air directly towards the swan. Just as he was about to reach him the young swan lifted his head. "Hey," he said. "Hey" said the gull and flew away. Okay, they didn't really say that, but that was my impression. The swan went back to sleep as the first gull also flew away.
One day I looked up and this big crane was just standing in the water near some other birds. I think a sandhill crane, but I'm sure of the first and not of the second. It hung out a little while and disappeared, maybe forever.
Just to give you an idea as to its comparative size:
Of course, Long Island is not the only place to bird watch. I got a feast of birds down in Florida the last year or so on two visits, mostly on the first one, which was also to an island (Marco Island). It is very old school there, just enough to do if you don't need variety, but the beaches and views are spectacular. We were very fortunate to stay in an apartment owned by friends of friends, right on a point overlooking islands, dolphins, a plethora of bird life and incredible sunrises and sets.
We were there about a week, and another few days down in the keys. But, sitting on the deck or by the pool gave you as much bird watching as you could want. If you looked up in the sky, you saw giant prehistoric looking birds floating on air currents high above the roof tops.
I couldn't get a view of the whole sky in my lens. But, the pterodactyls (what my friend, who had been there before, called them), which I soon identified as giant frigates, numbered in the hundreds easily.
Equally entertaining were the pelicans, an awkward looking but graceful flying bird that dives into the water from high above and make for great photos:
I was probably able to engage my love of bird watching best while I was living in Va., mostly because I had more time to sit on my porch. Birds were very habitual, often visiting the same spot at the same time every day during a season. The variety I saw is beyond number. One of my favorites were the hummingbirds who visited the feeder my landlord hung. A scarlet tanager used to visit the garden across the street from me in Virginia at the same time every day. He loved to linger at the tall stemmed flowers. I wish this picture was mine, but I also found it online.
Many larger birds were regulars, hawks, vultures and even bald eagles. I had two eagle experiences that will likely stick with me forever. Once kayaking down the James River, I came to its most ferocious water obstacle in the area - Balcony Falls. I went through untouched, and thought, hey, that was easy. I paddled back to the mountainous rocks in the middle of the river overlooking the falls and climbed up, dragging my kayak. Looking down, I picked a spot I thought might be more challenging and entered the water, paddling a little upstream and then letting the current pull me towards the falls. Going over a falls is easy. Gravity does everything. The problem comes when you enter the water and the high speed currents are going in multiple directions and you have to avoid rocks. But, I planned well, and headed for some shallow water I thought I would be able to just shoot over. Problem was, it was shallower than I thought when above it. As I approached as fast as you can imagine in a kayak, my mind reacted to the realization that I was going to smash into a huge rock just under the water line - perhaps and inch of draft - and I threw my paddle into the water to my left, holding it still so that I spun on a dime away from the rock. Almost. The very back of the kayak caught the rock. At that high speed (I was only a few feet from the falls) the impact sent me up in the air out of my seat, high enough so that I turned upside down as I plummeted into the water.
Hollllld everything - (readers my age will recognize the catchline from Dick Tracy uttered by the immortal Joe Jitsu). Let me take a pause here. I'm not exaggerating this at all. I made a huge mistake and risked my life, just because my first pass was so easy a mere 50 feet away. Except for the fact that you are reading this years later, you could easily imagine that I died there. But, there wasn't time to think. Back to our story. Six-two and even. Over and out.
I went into the water head first. Although I was wearing a helmet, it would not spare me if I hit a rock. But, I didn't. I smashed my hands on the rocks on the bottom of the river though, reversed course - not because of anything I was doing - and shot up to the surface, my hands still gripping the kayak as if I were still paddling, but ripped up and bleeding. The paddle bore scars too.
Holllld everything - what has this to do with birds? Be patient. Six-two and even. Over and out.
When I popped up, my head was upright and I said "Look, a bald eagle." One was flying by just as I came out of the water. Bizarre moment, at once trying to save my life, and the other part of me a spectator pointing out the majestic bird to other idiots who had spilled. It took me about a half hour to get to shore, rescue my kayak with help from some others up river, empty it, rest, and get back in. But, the eagle stayed with me, if only in my mind.
Having lived, it was a great adventure, as close a call as it was, and the eagle was a big part of it. My other eagle story is not quite so dramatic. I was driving north on the Blue Ridge Parkway (you may be more familiar with Skyline Drive, which is the northern part of the same road) which runs from Georgia to Northern Va. directly behind where I lived through wilderness. It is actually the most visited national park in the country by a large measure, although I'm sure others are better known. In any event, I decided to stop at an overlook and got out of my car.
In the distance I saw a bird flying. I thought it was a bald eagle but it was too far for me to tell. Suddenly I heard a long "creeeee." You may have had to be there, but it was a unique experience. I wish I had a picture. But I don't.
I do have a picture of a vulture in flight. They are incredibly ugly birds on the ground. Coming across a flock sitting in a dead tree or surrounding a dead animal on the ground waiting for it to rot enough to eat is one of the creepiest things in nature. But they graceful and hawklike in the air.
I found this heron (I think) sitting at the bottom of Lace Falls at the end of the trail at the Natural Bridge like he was posing for a picture. It might be an egret, but they are usually white. Frankly, there is not a lot of difference between egrets and herons as they are in the same family, but herons vary more in shape and color. At least I think so. I didn't say I was an expert.
You might be asking, where are the hawks? Well, they are there. You just can't see them. It was just too great a picture not to show off (and not for the first or last time).
Okay, that's it. After last week's lengthy footnoted entry, you deserve a break.
POST-SCRIPT MARCH 24, 2017
I was very excited yesterday to see some new ducks at the pond. Like the mersanders they were very tiny, much smaller than mallards, divers and with distinctive white markings. But, though they (there were two couples, it appeared) also kept their distance from the shore, also like the mersanders, I could just make out that the white markings were on the body, not the head and it had a more typical duck bill and shape.
I returned with my camera today and took some shots. Even with my 300mm lense, it was too far away and too small for a good picture at all, but the markings are distinctive enough that you can see it is the same bird as the professional photo. Like with the mersander, I knew I had seen a picture of this bird in a book but again did not remember the name of it (there are a lot of different kind of friggin' birds - I use to be much better with dog breeds, although there are so many of them now, maybe not anymore). It took me a few seconds to find it in one of my books. It was a ring-necked duck. Here's a close up from the internet followed by my distant shot. Look at the shape of the white plumage which shoots up vertically below the neck and the shape of the beak.