Mysterious Mergansers

Juvenile Hooded Mergansers thanks to Nathan
The original title to this picture on Flickr was 'What the hell are these ducks?' I thought they bore a slight similarity to some kind of mergansers, but I couldn't figure out what they really were even after poring over every guidebook I owned. Once again I was saved by a generous Flickr friend who told me what species I had photographed. This time it was Nathan Beaulne, also known as pwtphotography (form. multilanebrain aka Nathan)who solved the mystery. He told me I had captured two juvenile Hooded Mergansers.

Juvi Hooded Mergansers
Some of you might remember that I posted photos of Hooded Mergansers last year. I know what Hooded Mergansers look like, and they look nothing like this! Here are some photos of adult Hooded Mergansers taken by two of my other Flickr friends in case you forget what they look like.

Hooded Merganser 1originally uploaded by colographicalchemy

Nice 'Do!, originally uploaded by Rhode2Boston

You can understand my confusion, right? Hooded Mergansers, both male and female, are as about as distinctive a bird as you will ever see. Instantly recognizable.

Hooded Mergansers Incognito
They don't look at all like these two, do they?

Hooded Merganser Juvenile Male
Would you have known what kind of duck this was? If so, how? What field marks identify it? What field guide would be useful for making an ID of juvenile ducks? This is another example of the perils of birding in the fall. Even species you know well don't look anything like themselves!


Cormorants on a boat and turkeys at the beach!

Cormorants on a Boat
I bet the owners wouldn't find this as amusing as I do!

Turkey Coast Guard Beach
The ranger at the Cape Cod National Seashore parking lot pointed out this Wild Turkey to us when he saw our cameras.

Turkey Coast Guard Beach 2
Evidently he is a daily visitor, and not a bit shy.

Turkey Coast Guard Beach 3
My question is this: Why does this Wild Turkey have a red head, but the Wild Turkeys in my back yard all have blue heads? Any ideas?


Traumatic Tern Identification in the Fall

tern red legs and bill
I have always thought that terns are graceful, elegant, and beautiful birds.  It can be a real challenge to distinguish between tern species, however.  Even in the best of circumstances (which would be when all are in breeding plumage and posing exactly as they do in a field guide), it can be virtually impossible to correctly ID all the terns you see.  For an amateur tern aficionado like myself, every correctly identified tern is a major triumph. I'm not alone in having problems, either.  In the Advanced Birding Peterson Field Guide, there is a chapter on The Medium-sized Terns about Common Terns, Roseate Terns, Arctic Terns and Forster's Terns.  Our local terns, in other words.  I wouldn't have known this was a Forster's Tern in breeding plumage if a knowledgeable birder and photographer named Myer Bornstein, aka photo Bee1 on Flickr,hadn't told me.  

young Tern Red legs, short red and black bill
Identifying breeding adult terns is nothing compared to trying to ID these terns in September, however.  Adult terns are molting.  Juvenile terns are hard to identify at the best of times, and in September they are changing every day.  I have spent countless hours staring at pictures and consulting every book in my arsenal, but for the most part I can't figure out what species of terns we saw and photographed last weekend!

tern eyepatch
This one I know is a non-breeding Forster's Tern.  I only know this because a truly expert birder, known as corvid01 on Flickr, made the identification for me. The really good news is that one of my goals for our weekend birding expedition was to see a Forster's Tern.  The bad news is that I didn't know I had seen one. 

tern black bill yellow tip face front
All four species bills turn black in winter, making bill color pretty worthless as a field mark in the fall.  Head patterns also change in the fall for all four species.  Some of the black caps will turn partially white for the winter, so head patterns are in flux during September, too.  This bird has an almost all black bill, dark (possibly black) legs, and what looks like a long white tail.  If it were June, those clues would have suggested a Roseate Tern.  In September, I can't even hazard a guess!

I'm guessing Forster's here because of the eye patch look, but it is just a guess.  At this rate, I will be a student of terns forever, never mastering the subtleties of the true birder.  I'm OK with that, actually.  I enjoy learning things more than knowing things in most cases.  On the other hand, if anyone out there can help, please do!


Scary Big Buzzing Black Wasp!

Scary Bug: Great Black Wasp
I'm not usually one to photograph bugs, but this big, black, buzzing, evil looking wasp merited an exception. How big? Over an inch long. The scariest buzzing you could imagine, too. This monster is called a Great Black Wasp Sphex pensylvanicus. It is a relative of the Great Golden Digger Wasp I photographed last year.

Great Golden Killer Wasp
Sphex ichneumoneus . View large size to see the golden hairs on her head and thorax. This wasp is not aggressive towards humans, and is actually beneficial for gardeners. It's sting is said to cause very little pain (I didn't test this out myself), but the venom is very effective at paralyzing grasshoppers and katydids. What I first thought was a leaf on the ground is actually a paralyzed katydid that was dragged to the hole.

Great Black Wasp 1
This wasp looked frightening but it was also beautiful, with sheer iridescent violet-blue wings that shone in the sunlight. Like the Great Golden Digger Wasp, these wasps dig holes in the ground to lay their young.

Great Black Wasp stinger
Despite the scary looking stinger, this solitary wasp is not aggressive and will only sting you if you threaten it. If you get stung, though, it will hurt a lot! The real purpose of the stinger is to paralyze their prey in order to provide food for their young.

dragged to his death
The Great Golden Digger Wasp goes down to prepare a chamber to contain her victim, The Insect is completely paralyzed by her venom, and unable to move his limbs at all, never mind escape.

katydid killer
The Great Black Wasp is a creature worthy of starring in a horror movie. It's victims are paralyzed and eaten alive from the inside out. Lucky for us we're too big to fit in their burrows!

Preparing the death chamber
The Great Golden Digger Wasp is pulling the paralyzed insect down the hole. She will seal the Katydid in a chamber off of the tunnel, where it will live for days as it''s body serves as an incubator for the egg. After the egg hatches, the Katydid will be eaten alive by the larvae. (Did you ever see the movie Alien?)


A Very Tough Takeoff!

tough takeoff 1
Double-crested Cormorants often to struggle to get airborne.

tough takeoff 2
Cormorants have to run on top of the water while flapping vigorously for a good distance in order to achieve liftoff.

tough takeoff 3
This bird looked to be doing fine, but then he started flapping and running in the air.

tough takeoff 4
Many large birds have to work at taking off, but the Cormorant may be hampered by more than just weight. Their feathers are not completely waterproof, which is why you often see them drying their wings in the sunshine.

tough takeoff 5
The non-watertight feathers makes them less buoyant than most water birds, which gives them the ability to dive deep underwater to fish.

tough takeoff 6
Success at deep sea diving comes at a cost, however. Not only do they have to stand around for hours with their wings held up high; they also have to deal with excess water weight when trying to lift off.

tough takeoff 7
The difficulties Cormorants face getting into the air are formidable. They may stumble now and then, but all in all they do very well.


Western Willet Gobbling Crabs!

western willet catches crab
You wouldn't believe how many little crabs this guy was catching. This is a juvenile Western Willet.

western willet catches crab 1
Look at the effort he puts into snapping that bill!

western willet catches crab 3
He was eating them like popcorn!

eastern willet
I didn't even know there were two kinds of willet around here, so I took 200 pictures of the other bird because I didn't know what it was. As it turns out, Eastern Willets are more compact, smaller, darker colored, and have thicker bills than Western Willets.

western willet
Western Willets are more elongated , longer-legged, and somewhat larger overall. They are paler and more muted in color, and have a longer, bill that is thinner at the top. I'm still not sure if this counts as a new bird on my Lifelist!


Seals Swimming at the Seashore!

coast guard beach seal
We captured some excellent images of the seals at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham.

coast guard beach seal 2
There were a ton of seals right offshore.

coast guard beach seal 3
They seemed to be having an excellent time in the water!

coast guard beach seal 1
The surf was probably a bit chilly for humans on the ocean side of the cape.

coast guard beach seal 4
But evidently the water was ideal for seals!


Shorebird Swan Lake!

Dance of the Yellowlegs 1
This bird may have been doing his daily calisthenics, or he may have been performing a ballet.

Dance of the Yellowlegs 2
His graceful movements soon convinced me it must be a performance of Swan Lake put on for my benefit.

Dance of the Yellowlegs

He danced so beautifully that I found myself mesmerised.

Dance of the Yellowlegs 3
When he took a bow, I couldn't help but burst into applause!


Birds from Bourne

mute swan f ponds
We visited the Four Ponds Conservation Area in Pocasset when we were on vacation, and we found it to be a beautiful place with a variety of habitats and lots of trails to explore. This particular pond was graced with some lovely Mute Swans.

four ponds downy woodpecker 2
A winsome looking Downy Woodpecker made an appearance.

chickadee four ponds
Our much beloved state bird of Massachusetts, the Black-capped Chickadee, was well represented in the woods.

four ponds catbird
It seems as if everywhere you go on Cape Cod the woods are full of crying Catbirds, and this area was no exception.

imm american robin
I was very pleased to get a recognizable picture of a juvenile American Robin. You could say I've been waiting a whole year for this image! I saw one of these last year and suspected it was a young robin, but I couldn't be sure. This year I got a very good look.


Ugly Duck or Common Eider?

ugly ducks feet
Through a long process of elimination, I have finally decided that this is a juvenile and/or female Common Eider (a life-lister for me!). He was in the bay every day of the two weeks we were on Tahanto, and quickly became a familiar sight. Unfortunately, the name I first uttered at the sight of him stuck, and we all called him Ugly Duck.

ugly duck other
Even with limited internet access, you'd think such a distinctive face would be easy to identify. Nope. The coloring was a little off from the field guides, his size seemed far too small, and some of the behavior displayed by Ugly Duck remains puzzling still.

uglyduck closeup
A Common Eider is a diving duck. Our duck put his head under water all the time, but he that can't really be described as diving. He was rarely completely submerged. He'd stay under for a second or two at most.

ugly ducks feet 2
These enormous feet, which I didn't notice until he climbed onto this rock, were an additional and very helpful clue. The flap on the back of the webbed feet is characteristic of a Common Eider.

south beach eider display
This is not Ugly Duck, but is clearly the same species. This looks much more like a Common Eider, and even the pose is typical for Common Eiders. Eventually, we were all convinced that Ugly Duck was also a Common Eider. It is quite likely, however, that he is actually a she!