Ducks Do It

Two weeks ago I explained how birds manage to have sex. But somehow, there are always those species that make things more complicated. Last week’s explanation applied to 97% of bird species. But a few kinds of birds don’t follow the flock.

Take Cassowaries, for example. Both the male and female have what appears to be a penis attached to their cloacas, although the female’s is somewhat smaller than the male’s. It’s used during copulation, but it doesn’t channel sperm. Instead, after penetrating the female, the male expels his semen directly from his cloaca.

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Birding the Sacramento Valley

SacramentoNWR-CA_LAH_2056Ducks a few feet from my lens. Snow Geese, Canada (and Cackling?) Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, all hanging out together. Beautiful weather. No crowds. And best of all, a new bird for my life list! The day I recently spent at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge complex was about as perfect as a bird photographer’s day can be.

The refuge complex has many locations along the Sacramento River and in the surrounding valley. I had time for two stops, at Colusa NWR and Sacramento NWR. (It took me a while to figure out that Sacramento NWR is part of the Sacramento NWR complex. Talk about confusing!)

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Birding Ramah SWA

RamahSWA-CO_LAH_7988I wanted to squeeze in at least one more field trip before the first snows, so I joined up with other members of our local Audubon chapter and headed out to Ramah State Wildlife Area. Located in Colorado’s eastern El Paso County, Ramah is surrounded by miles of shortgrass prairie. The views include cows, rolling hills, and Excel Energy’s new windmill farm. There’s a shallow valley that has been dammed to trap rain runoff in wet years.

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Birding the San Luis Valley

White-faced Ibis_AlamosaNWR-CO_LAH_2653With my recent weekend in the mountains still fresh in my mind, I was eager to return to the San Luis Valley, in south-central Colorado, to look for more birds. The conference field trips had been crowded, and I figured that ditching the entourage should help me get closer views, and hopefully photographs, of the birds we’d seen the previous weekend. And it just so happened that Pete and I had scheduled a date day. How convenient.

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Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Visitor Center_BearLakeMigratoryBirdRefuge-UT_LAH_3884Want some great birding in northern Utah? I recently discovered a real gem—the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. It’s located on the northeast corner of the Great Salt Lake, just northwest of Ogden off I-15/I-84. The day I visited—midweek in early April—I almost had the place to myself. It was just me and plenty of birds! (Don’t confuse this place with Bear Lake NWR, in Idaho, which is also well worth a visit.) Continue reading “Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge”

Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR

Saturday was such a gorgeous day in Colorado, my husband and I headed for the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, just northeast of Denver. There’s something inherently satisfying about taking a place that was once a chemical warfare factory and turning it into a shortgrass prairie abounding in wildlife.

Or at least it was supposed to abound. We’ve been there before, in late spring, when the numerous scrubby areas were full of birds. This visit was quite different.

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In Praise of Ducks

mallard-male_portlandor_20100208_lah_8917“Oh, it’s just another Mallard.”

How many times have I said that? As a birder, I’m always looking for the rare bird, the unusual find that will add to my life list. Last month’s Snowy Owl fit the bill—getting such a great view of that magnificent predator was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I just got home from a week in northern Oregon and southern Washington. While I did pick up a couple of new species for my list, I mostly saw ducks. Lots of ducks. Hundreds of ducks. (Did I mention I was in Oregon?)

So—I looked at ducks. Really looked. And you know, ducks are pretty cool!

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Winter Birding in Colorado

kettlecreeklakes_2008-11-22_lah_361rOur recent warm spell is lovely, but it’s still January. Temperatures swing back and forth between cool and freezing. Trails are icy, and sometimes blocked by snow. This is traditionally a time to hole up and hunker down. We are attracted to warm firesides, hot chocolate, and snugly quilts. But if you, like me, are passionate about nature, and birds in particular, can we be content to sit by the fire? Just because the temperature outside is in the single digits, are we to ignore our obsession and hibernate like bears?

Of course, some birds have opted for tropical vacations, and I’m sure we would love to do likewise. But if the schedule and budget don’t allow for a trip to Central America, be encouraged. There are plenty of birds to be enjoyed right here. A surprising number of species hang around for the season.

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Brown Ducks

This mallard really is a female.
This mallard really is a female.

“They’re all females! Where did the males go?”

My friend and I were newbie birders; I’d started keeping a “Life List” only two months earlier. August found us at our favorite spot—the local nature center’s ponds. As usual, the water was covered with ducks and other waterfowl. But the more we stared through our binoculars, the more confused we got. All the ducks were brown! What had happened to the familiar green heads of the mallards? We figured that some of the “females” must be immature males, but where were the adults?

Of course, we know better now. The males were still there. They had just turned brown. We birders call that their “eclipse” plumage. When you’re not trying to impress the ladies, there’s no reason to be flashy. It’s much safer to blend in with your surroundings. The male ducks were just doing what the females do all year—hiding from predators.

Recently, I was back at the same familiar pond, staring at all the mottled tan ducks and trying to identify them. It was darn difficult. As a beginner, I learned the various local ducks because it was easy… in general, the males of each species look pretty different from one another, and they just sit there in plain view, bobbing on the water. (At the nature center, the birds are accustomed to people, so it’s possible to get fairly close without disturbing them.) I figured that I’d save the harder females for another day, when I had more experience.

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Preserve Wetlands—Buy a Duck Stamp!

2003 CO Duck Stamp c Cynthie FisherThe purchase of a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, more simply known as a “Duck Stamp,” is one of the best ways you can promote wetlands conservation. Since its inception in 1934 as a federal license for hunting migratory waterfowl, this program has generated over $670,000,000 that has been used to purchase or lease 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat that is now included in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The stamps are only $15, and 98% of that is used for habitat preservation! With a decline in the number of hunters, it is more important than ever that conservationists, and especially birders, purchase Duck Stamps. As a bonus, having the current year’s stamp allows you free access to any National Wildlife Refuge, many of which now charge admission fees.

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